Anselm conversation continues

A comment on a post from a few days ago raises some questions that I’d love to see some further discussion about, so I’m putting the comment out here.

AnselmIt is from a post quoting some of Anselm’s writing about the gravity of sin. Anselm argues, to be overly simplistic in my summary, that every sin is of incalculable significance because it violates the will of God. This is part of a larger argument about the incarnation was necessary to restore us to right relationship with God.

In the initial comment on the post, Anselm was criticized for his conclusions based on a hypothetical situation that said we should not violate the least command of God even if it meant entire worlds would be destroyed by our refusal to disobey God. Anselm’s argument was also linked to the theology of Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church. In my response to that comment, I explained that my goal in trying to understand Anselm was to determine whether I found him persuasive.

Which sets the stage for reading and responding to this comment from a reader:

I’m confused about a number of things now.

1. Are we actually trying to figure out whether Anselm’s works have “merit or value”? This is Saint Anselm, right? A Father of the Church, who was esteemed by all Christians until about 400 years ago. Shouldn’t we be trying to understand his work, not judge its “merit or value”?

2. I think two other issues have been fused in the discussion. One is “How big a deal is it” to knowingly violate God’s will. The other is, are there gradations of sin? It seems obvious to me, a non-theologian, that to willingly violate God’s will is a big deal, Is there a serious argument otherwise? The question of gradations of sin seems to have more to do with one’s views about reconciliation and how that works.

3. And in the first response, I don’t understand how the question about God’s will, and how that enters into the definition of the good, relates to the notion of sin, which has to do with our obedience to God. It sounds like the writer is somehow letting a human’s view of what is good trump God’s will. That’s gotta be sinful.

4. Interesting point about the Reverend Phelps, but there is an additional lesson there. Situations like his (Rev. Phelps) arise when there is no disciplined hierarchy involved in the declaration and proclamation of God’s word. He is a radical outlier who represents only himself, not the settled views of orthodoxy. Anselm was the opposite of that.



7 thoughts on “Anselm conversation continues

  1. Is the goodness and even Godness of God located primarily in God’s command? If so, Anselm’s argument about sin is inescapable.

    How do I know it is God telling me to look a particular direction?

    1. Well, in Anselm’s hypothetical that got this all started it was supposing you are standing in God’s presence. The point was to ask whether if you knew for certain that God wanted you to do something is there anything at all that would cause you to violate that clear command.

  2. “I’m confused” is the most disingenuous phrase that gets used in the blogosphere. As a descendant of the reformation, I’m not going to say that tradition is infallible. Anselm screwed up by using speculative logic to answer a question that has many more adequate Biblically rooted answers. The book of Hebrews is a good starting point and it presents a holistic answer to not just why the cross but why the incarnation, cross, and resurrection.

    Life does not present itself to us in situations where God appears in person and gives us commands out of context, and God doesn’t give commands that are arbitrary like look to the left. I don’t know anyone who would have the balls to disobey God if He stood over them and gave a command but that doesn’t have to do with virtue; it would be purely fear-motivated.

    My concern is with the depiction of the banker/bureaucrat God that has been created by the penal substitution theory that came from Anselm via nominalism insofar as the extra-Biblical speculation has become an interpretive lens that warps our understanding of what the canon says. I think it depicts things in an unnecessarily ugly way in which many Christians seem to find a perverse pleasure. They are described in Matthew 23.

    God desires mercy not sacrifice. I will say it till I’m blue in the face because that’s the word that He’s given me. The holiness to which He calls us serves the purpose of His hospitality and telos of reconciliation for all creation, not some abstract sense of honor. I will not be quiet while my Methodists try their best to become the Southern Baptists that I left behind.

  3. I can’t reply to all of the complicated ideas and statements in the above comment, but to my simple and often confused mind the following ideas do appear clear.
    The assertion that God doesn’t show up and simply give us commands would come as a surprise to readers of the Ten Commandments, as well as to Mary, Paul, and several others, most of whom remain nameless in history.
    In a similar vein, when Christ speaks of carrying one’s cross we may assume He wants us to be merciful, but he is demanding sacrifice. Christ was and is always merciful, but mounting the cross was a sacrificial act on his part, as it is on ours as well.

  4. Question 1: Just because someone is named “A Father of the Church” hundreds of years ago, that doesn’t mean his work continues to have “merit or value.” To quote James Russell Lowell: “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
    “They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.”

    Question 2: We creatures cannot presume to know all of God’s will, and therefore in times of moral challenge, it is possible to make a “right” decision and still commit sin. Therefore, like Luther, if we must sin, we should “sin boldly” being assured of forgiveness by the unfathomable Creator.

    In my view, Anselm has been a tremendous detriment to the church because he foisted upon it the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, which locked the Church into an erroneous dogma that the only reason Jesus was Incarnate of God was to die. That smacks of divine child abuse, and obscures the reality that the greater portion of Jesus’ earthly ministry was to teach people how to live here and now, not at some pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by moment. Jesus died not FOR our sin but BECAUSE of our sin, i.e., as a traitor for denouncing the Roman imperial religion which held that Caesar was God. Through his teaching and preaching on the sovereign God whose essence is Love, Jesus was a threat to both the political dictatorship and the religious establishment. Hence his Crucifixion, which was the form of execution generally reserved for political prisoners, so as to strike fear into conquered peoples (“tow the line or you’ll be killed in this horrible fashion also”). Fortunately, God had Resurrection up His/Her sleeve to show that Love still reigned.

    1. Thanks for dropping by to comment, Cynthia.

      As I read Anselm’s work — and I may be reading him wrong — he started from the conviction that Jesus died for our sins (which has a bit of scriptural support) and tried to develop a logical argument for why God accomplished our redemption in that way. He notes that lots of people were asking, “Why didn’t God just wave his hands and forgive our sins?” He tried to answer that.

      So, I don’t see this as “foisting” anything on the church. He has a pretty extensive argument about how Jesus died not because he wanted to die, but because he was being faithful to the Father and that led to his death. Divine child abuse is a catchy phrase, but it seems more cute than fair to what Anselm actually wrote and tried to argue.

      I’m not arguing that Anselm is the end of all theology. I just want to understand him before I decide that Christians made a mistake in preserving his thought.

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