Atonement & Indebted Servitude


This is an exploration of Anselm of Canterbury’s theological work, Curs Deus Homo, usually translated as “Why God became a Man.” The work is primarily concerned with providing a theory of Atonement. The theory that Anselm articulates is now known as the Satisfaction theory of Atonement. I will begin by providing the historical and theological contexts which give rise to Anselm’s interpretation of the Atonement and then I will move on to providing a general outline and account of Anselm’s argument. I will conclude with some personal thoughts concerning this view of the Atonement.

I get a real kick out of Theology. Always have. Chalk it up to my Catholic upbringing and my philosophically questioning proclivities, but a systematic development and explication of religious beliefs using the rational tools of Philosophy has always been of interest to me. But I’ve never really tried to seriously do Theology, to approach the doctrines of the religion I was raised in in a genuinely personal way. Sure, as a Philosophy undergrad I studied Aquinas’ proofs for the existence of God, and Anselm’s ontological argument, but it was always from a scholarly, detached vantage point. It was never personal. That’s why I’ve recently made a much more substantial effort to really get into the nitty gritty of some of the religious doctrines that hung around in the background of my childhood. It’s been…interesting.

So before going further, a pre-warning: In doing Theology seriously, we do have to take the religious beliefs in question seriously and draw out the alleged rational scaffolding beneath them. St. Anselm of Canterbury’s famous slogan, “faith seeking understanding,” is apt here. When we do Theology, we are working under the assumption that the doctrines of a given faith are in fact understandable on some level. ‘Because the Bible says so,’ might be enough for some to buy into this or that doctrine, but the serious Theologian usually is working under something like the additional assumption that God is a rational being, since it is better to be rational than irrational. And because God is rational, what He says and does is also rational. So, a divine act, like the Atonement in Christian thought, must be rationally explicable to some extent.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the Atonement. What is that all about to those unfamiliar with it? Christian conceptions of salvation more less hinge on the claim that Jesus Christ (the Son of God) saved humanity by reconciling us to God through his death on the Cross. In this way, Christ ‘atoned’ for the sins of humanity, by way of sacrifice, and freed human beings to be able to have a relationship with God and have a share of eternal life. Sin and the Devil no longer held human beings in bondage anymore, at least those that followed the Christian faith. Going to church and bible classes as a kid, I got a version of this story. That’s the religious doctrine, but what are the mechanics of it if we are trying to be Theological about it? Okay, let’s say that Christ atoned for us, and freed us in the process, but in what way does Christ’s sacrifice lead to human freedom from Sin and bondage to the Devil?

The Web of “Atonement Theories

The Early Church all the way up to the Scholastic Period (for nearly a thousand years) predominantly understood the mechanics of the Atonement on the basis of the Ransom Theory in which Christ served as a ransom payment to the Devil on behalf of humanity. By offering himself to the Devil as a sacrifice, Christ freed humanity from servitude to Sin and thus, reconciliation with God became a possibility. This is not to say that there aren’t any other interpretations of the Atonement which were concurrent with or variations on the Ransom Theory. In fact, many of them I have broadly outlined in fig.1 below.

fig.1 Generalized groupings of historically dominant Atonement Theories.

Many of these other concurrent theories, which are typically grouped under the heading of “Classic Paradigms,” weren’t necessarily competitive with the Ransom Theory and in fact, could be considered complimentary to it. For example, the Recapitulation Theory held that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, an instance in which God participated in human life, allowed for human beings to be able to participate in the divine life. Some of the Early Church Fathers endorsed both the Recapitulation and Ransom theory at the same time, without seeing them as contradictory.

But Anselm, writing in the 11th century, in his work “Curs Deus Homo,” (CDH) rejects the Ransom Theory and instead tries to formulate a new interpretation of the Atonement, one which will be influential for later Theological attempts to grapple with the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice. In Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory, emphasis will be placed on God as the object that Christ’s sacrifice is directed towards. According to Anselm, it is not the Devil that needs to be satisfied for humanity to be released from bondage to Sin, but it is God Himself. The various interpretive offspring of Anselm’s shift in emphasis, grouped under the Objective Paradigm, will all share this trait, in one way or another.

Before moving on, I will acknowledge that I haven’t said too much about Atonement theories that fall under the Subjective Paradigm. Anselm doesn’t explicitly grapple with any versions that fall under this paradigm mainly because the most explicitly formulated Atonement Theories that fall under the Subjective Paradigm don’t really get off the ground until after Anselm’s own writings on the subject. And so the Subjective Paradigm is outside the scope of this analysis. Perhaps I will have more to say about this particular paradigm at a later time.

Putting Satan (& Man) in his Proper Place

Anselm rejects the Ransom Theory in (CDH I.6-I.7) by pointing out that it problematizes the sovereign status that God is supposed to have in relation to all of creation. After all, if God is having to provide a ransom of some sort to the Devil for humanity, this implies that the Devil has some sort of power comparable to God. Anselm wants to displace this idea of the Devil as a ruler and what he does is first, recast the role of the Devil from opposing ruler to rebellious servant. In this way, Anselm thinks that God’s status as the lord of all creation can remain consistent.

But if the Devil is merely a rebellious servant what does that make Man? Certainly not a powerless prisoner who has been stolen from the kingdom of God and trapped in the kingdom of Sin and death unwillingly. No, instead, for Anselm, Man is another servant that was ‘seduced’ by the Devil’s words and so willingly abandoned his duties to God and is now caught up in Sin and death. But this is not Man’s proper place, his proper place is serving God, because after all, he owes everything to God, even his very existence. So Man may want to return to God, want to reconcile, but a crime has been committed against God, the crime of dishonoring God. If Man is to be reconciled with God, God’s honor must be satisfied, something must be paid back. Otherwise, Man will always remain guilty. (CDH I.11)

This…seems strange on the face of it. I know that, for me at least, when I try to make sense of it I get too caught up in the master-servant analogy that Anselm uses to illustrate the relationship between God and Man. Maybe it’s because I’m offended at the idea that indebted servanthood is what I am essentially constituted as in Anselm’s hierarchal framework. But why does Anselm think that this is the ground floor of what it means to be human?

In CDH I.10, I.24, and II.1, Anselm affords us with some insight about what he thinks the meaning of human life is. In CDH I.10 he tells us that “man was created for happiness,” and later, that this happiness is only possible through obedience to God (CDH II.1). Anselm’s basis for this is that human beings are clearly rational creatures and that our rationality is essentially an instrument which allows us to be able to distinguish between “justice and injustice, good and evil, and between the greater and the lesser good.” Especially in regards to the good, Anselm thinks that it is obvious that the greatest good is God. From this it follows that if we are using our rationality correctly, we should be able to discern that our happiness ultimately rests on our “enjoying the supreme good, which is God.”

Anselm isn’t pulling this reading of the meaning of human life out of thin air by the way. In fact, Anselm was very much steeped in the philosophical traditions of the Ancient Greeks and if you’re familiar with Aristotle, you might notice some similarities here. Aristotle defined the goal of human life as happiness (eudaimonia), and happiness he construed as a kind of flourishing peculiar to the thing we are talking about. Aristotle identified the peculiar function of a human being as consisting of the ability to use rationality and to act on the basis of it. Anselm picks up on this thread but adds that the supreme good must lie outside the scope of human action, that it must be God, the use of rationality is only the means by which we get to that which we will actually get enjoyment out of.

But enjoyment of the ‘supreme good,’ isn’t as seemingly leisurely as we would think it is. According to Anselm, nothing that human beings possess are ours primordially, they were given to us by God. Even existence doesn’t belong to us, all of creation is, after all, created ex nihilo. Thus, because all of our ontological resources were given to us, the fruits of our labor are owed to God, that is, we are indebted to God. (CDH I.20). If we were to formulate this in an is-ought sort of way, we could say, ‘Man’s ontological status is that of indebted servitude, therefore, Man ought to repay his debt for the duration of his existence.’ But the fruits of our labors shouldn’t be construed in a purely economical way. It’s not like we owe God money, or property taxes, or a share of the crops that we grew.

The way Anselm spells it out, human debt towards the divine really consists of such things as practicing humility, having a strong work ethic, giving to the poor, and forgiving your fellow human beings when they wrong you. These sorts of things are fundamentally how we should be practicing our indebtedness to God, (CDH I.11) and in doing so, getting closer to happiness. Fig. 2 below is rough outline of what the practice of indebted servitude looks like for Anselm.

fig. 2. Anselmian Indebted Servitude

But clearly we don’t always practice our indebtedness to God the way that Anselm thinks we ought to. We sin, that is, we fail to give to God what we owe Him (I.11). This isn’t completely our individual doing of course, but Anselm, like many Theologians of his era, also works under the assumption of Original Sin. The first humans renounced their indebted servitude and so this first Sin implicated the entirety of the human race in Sin. So, whether we realize it or not, we are collectively guilty of and are caught up as well in the consequences of our renunciation of our indebted servitude.

What we Owe God

Anselm however, believes that all is not lost, that it is still in the power of the human being to turn away from the Devil and to some degree attempt to live according to God’s will, to attempt to re-take the status of indebted servitude that was his original way of being. But amends must be made to God, the servant wants to return to his former indebted state, but this is only one correction, now Man owes something additional for having dishonored God, a payment for damages, something that Anselm doesn’t think that Man is able to pay by himself.

This payment for damages is infinite, according to Anselm. A human being could work their entire life doing everything imaginable to honor God but would still only have scratched the surface of the damages that are owed. This sets up an interesting question though: Why is God seeking damages? After all, it makes sense for a human being to seek damages for some crime that’s been committed against them, say, if it had caused them great emotional distress, but God is all powerful, above earthly matters right? In what way could God have been hurt by humanity’s disobedience?

Anselm tries to resolve this dilemma in CDH I.12 by pointing out that while God is the most powerful of all beings, He is also the most just. In being the most just of all beings, He has a commitment to justice that is unwavering in a way that stems from His own willing justice. We can imagine that God forgets about Sin, He could say, ‘ah it’s not a big deal, all is forgiven, I’ll let it slide,’ but if God does that, then God is in some way condoning disorderly behavior in his kingdom, He is allowing injustice to have more power than justice. And furthermore, in a world where Sin incurs the same consequences as non-Sin, where following the law means the same thing as not following the law, the notion of justice becomes meaningless. So, when God demands satisfaction for the Sin which Man has committed when he dishonored God by renouncing his indebted servitude, it isn’t because God is really hurt, it’s more like God wants to maintain law and order in creation and this can only be done if God takes on a role of victim.

In a case involving mortal beings for example, let’s say that John damaged Jeff’s reputation by telling everyone in the country that Jeff had done horrible things and that he was a terrible person and so on and so. Let’s say that this caused Jeff’s business to suffer greatly and so Jeff took John to court where it was proven that John had intentionally lied in order to damage Jeff’s reputation. Jeff would typically be found justified in asking for two sorts of distinct damages. First, economic damages, such as lost earnings, future lost earnings and opportunities that Jeff suffered due to John’s defamatory statements. Second, Jeff could also seek compensation for non-economic damages, such as mental anguish and emotional distress, or even for the personal humiliation and shame that Jeff suffered due to John’s lies. All things being equal, we would not think it unfair for John to owe Jeff both of these sorts of damages, we would probably consider that justice.

Anselm imports this sort of situation to a divine court of law, wherein God is the plaintiff and Man is the defendant. If justice is to be upheld in both small and great things, Anselm thinks, God must seek damages, which in God’s case can only compound Man’s debt infinitely.

So God demands His satisfaction, and Man, being the one who committed the crime, ought to not only return to his indebted servitude, but also pay back an additional sum for damages. Yet Anselm admits that Man can never pay back the additional sum, no matter how many good works he accomplishes. The additional sum is a compounding of the original amount that Man, as a created being, owed to begin with, and the original debt was already, in many respects, quite steep, since it involved serving God for the duration of one’s life and even beyond.

So this is the dilemma, Man ought to pay back God, and even if Man wants to pay back God, Man is not able to by virtue of the infinitely compounded debt that was owed. It seems like, given this dilemma, salvation is not possible for Man.

Only a God-Man can Save Us

How does Anselm get to any sort of resolution then? Clearly God is not going to let Man’s original disobedience go, out of a sense of divine justice, yet God is also divinely merciful, at least according to Anselm. If He is divinely merciful, it seems like it would be wrong of Him to simply leave us unreconciled with Him, right? Well, based on the route Anselm has taken us, a human being must be the one who needs to render payment, yet is unable to. In fact, it seems that the only one who could render a payment of infinite value would have to be God Himself. But this is exactly the solution that Anselm proposes.

For Anselm, Jesus Christ is both God and Man and so justifiably is liable for the damages incurred since, by incarnating into a human body, He in a sense, becomes implicated in Original Sin. And because Christ is the Son of God, the third person of the Trinity, then any payment he renders will have infinite value, and so be able to adequately pay for the damage of dishonoring God. (CDH II.6) If I were to try to go into the metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology, this article would run for far longer than I have patience to write it, and Anselm does offer an argument within CDH that attempts to articulate his position more rationally, but, based on my own Catholic understanding, we can treat Christ as both God and as distinct from God. In this way, Christ is able to be both distinct from and identified with God the Father.

Christ’s death is of infinite value, greater than all of created being. (CDH II.14) Remember, Christ, in Anselm’s view, is the Son of God, and also God, so He is equivalent to the Supreme Good. If He is equivalent to the Supreme Good, as Anselm thinks He is, then if He is to be lost, then His loss would be greater than if all of creation were lost. I think this way of looking at Christ’s value over and above creation is not very appealing to our modern sensibilities. We want everyone to be equal, to be on the same level and of equal value, which makes sense, and there’s no way to avoid that Anselm definitely works under the assumption of a hierarchy in which some entities are just better than and of more value than others.

The divine just has to have more value in order for Anselm’s argument to work though, and I think for the time being we just have to go along with that. And if we find ourselves not being able to go along with that right away, if we need a push to keep winding through Anselm’s argument, we can remind ourselves that for Anselm, happiness resides with the divine, they are in fact, equivalent. So if we are to say that the divine is not something that has infinitely greater value than everything else in creation, we might be saying something like ‘the happiness that every single living thing is searching for is not worth saving,’ or, ‘happiness is really worthless.’ On these grounds we can at least grudgingly allow for why Anselm thinks Christ’s life has more value than the life of a normal human being.

But say we go along with the idea that Christ has more value than any created thing. Now, we have to ask, along with Anselm, what it would mean for something, or in this case someone like that to die in our place for something that it did not do? And when I ask this, I don’t ask it in some way to induce guilt, I ask it to work out the implications of Anselm’s legalistic interpretation of the Atonement. What comes of Christ dying in this context?

For Anselm, Christ is both Man and God. But Christ’s being a human being, at least the way I read Anselm, is really only human because He needs to legally be under obligation to repay what is owed by Man. And Christ can only be implicated in the repayment if He is a Man. When Christ sacrifices himself, He is repaying that infinite debt because He is able to, but since Christ is also God, he is, in effect, able to cover the infinite amount due. Now, the way we should be reading Anselm here, I think, is that by covering the debt even though he didn’t have to (remember Christ didn’t Sin, he just incarnated to be implicated in Sin) Christ in effect, earned a reward from God, a reward of infinite merit, which Christ bestows on Man so that Man can authentically reconcile with God, provided they accept Christ.

This is a return to the Anselmean legalism which has been quietly rumbling throughout CDH. To translate it to myself, to my contemporary sensibility, I think of it this way. Say someone in my household owes a credit card debt that they cannot cover. I pretend to be that person and, in their place, pay the credit card bill and actually end up overpaying. The credit card company contacts me later (still thinking I am the cardowner) and tells me, ‘you overpaid on your bill we owe you credit, how would you like to receive it?’ I say, ‘just send me a check.’ Sneakily, I have not told the the credit card company that I intend to share that money I’m getting back with everyone that lives in my household. ‘Ok,’ says the bank, your check is on the way. Because what was owed is $, you paid $, your arriving check will be $.’ I say ‘thank you’ and hang up the phone. Now I go and tell every single person in the world that if they come live in my house, I will share that $ with them. The house is also such that it has an infinitely expanding number of rooms based on occupants. Thus, everyone who comes live in my house now benefits from the $ check that I received.

This is essentially how I read Anselm’s explanation of human reconciliation with God here. Christ is the sneaky credit card owner, the bank is God the Father, and the household is something like the church. It’s an image that helps me wrap my head around the Atonement, at least as Anselm explains it. Yet I find myself wondering why I’m bothered, on a more personal level by Anselm’s theory. I can follow along with his argument and, for the most part, grasp how he gets from A to B, how he thinks Christ’s death ‘satisfies’ the demands of divine justice which humanity has run a fowl through sinning. But what Anselm’s account of Atonement rests on, on ‘indebted servitude,’ there is something about that which I find difficult to shake off.

The main concern I have with Anselm’s account of the Atonement concerns the emphasis that he places on the human ontological position as being fundamentally one of indebted servitude. While I have tried to point out that ‘indebted servitude’ as Anselm sees it, is much less transactional than a first reading would reveal, I think that Anselm’s nuanced view generally gets lost in the mix. Instead, the overall picture that I think most people come away with, and that I even struggle with, is a picture of God as a divine feudalistic overseer of sorts who demands of us a cost for having been brought into existence. And even if I buy into the ‘indebted servitude’ model in good faith, if I just go along with it as a fact, I must still contend with the meaning of defining myself as ontologically indebted. That is, I still have feelings about categorizing myself in such a way.

After all, the categories by which I understand indebtedness are only human categories, hence my having to make sense of Anselm’s Atonement Theory on the basis of transactional or legal analogies. And the way that indebtedness affects me, say when I have to pay a large credit card bill, or calculate how many more years of student debt I owe, or find that there are unforeseen medical expenses I have to pay, is never really positively meaningful for me. I don’t want to look at my bills, they bring on a twist in my stomach. I don’t want to think about what I owe, and this is about things that I think I have good reason to pay back. After all, in all of those cases, there was some concrete service that I received. It only makes sense to think that I ought to pay for the services provided.

But in the case of divine debt, that I ‘ought’ to pay God back for bringing me into existence isn’t immediately clear to me. The twist in my stomach generally isn’t there that there is this divine balance that I am accruing. In fact, I might even laugh and think to myself that God in fact owes me for bringing me into existence, a complaint somewhere along the lines of ‘I didn’t ask to be born!’

Anselm, I think, might attribute these objections to the collective Sin which I am implicated in through merely being a human being, a Sin which prevents me from clearly seeing the truth of my ontological status as well as appreciating the positive meaning regarding that status. I can imagine Anselm saying something like, ‘well of course you complain about your state of existence, why being alive isn’t so pleasant, those are the wages of Sin! It is like a cloud that covers over you day to day, and it even blocks you from seeing where your priorities should be!’

And I can say, ‘ok, I will take it on your word that there is this Sin which clouds my intuition concerning the divine debt that I owe, furthermore, I will allow that this clouded intuition might be keeping me from positively appreciating the bare fact of existence,’ but I will still carry a resentment, whether justified or not, at having to owe anyone (even God) anything. After all, in the context of human debts, the goal is to ultimately be free of debts, to be unburdened of this weight. How can God be good if he places on me not only the weight of ‘indebted servitude,’ but also the weight of satisfaction due for sin, essentially an infinitely compounded debt? Sure, Christ, on Anselm’s account, may save me from having to make satisfaction for Original Sin, but that doesn’t release me from ontological indebtedness or the accompanying twist in my stomach related to it.

I think that this is where where my problem with Anselm’s account ultimately revolves around then. I just don’t have a healthy relationship with the concept of debt and debt-hood. Ultimately, I am compelled to always view debt as something to be destroyed, to be done away with because for me, debt is constraining, it is a restriction on my freedom in a way. How can I ever be happy if I am unfree?

But Anselm doesn’t seem to be working with this view of debt when he’s thinking about divine indebtedness, and this is why I think that for Anselm, willingly living the life of indebtedness is fundamentally, the only way to really be happy. After all, the debt that is owed to God, for Anselm, is the debt of aligning my will with God’s will. The analogy of debt owed to a feudal lord may be how Anselm presents his case, but let’s be clear, the debt owed to the divine is really what’s on the line here.

So, for Anselm, I repay God by wanting what God wants. But if God is good, and God loves me, then all God wants is what is best for me, what will bring me happiness, otherwise the Atonement would not have been needed. So I wind up with the conclusion that essentially, what I owe to God is really the only thing I can think of that I owe myself, which is to be happy. Of course, in trying to be happy in this way, in practicing wanting what God wants, I may have to give up things that I formerly thought made me happy, but for me personally, that is an entirely different Theological conversation, one that doesn’t just consist of blindly giving up my rational autonomy. After all, my rational autonomy, on Anselm’s view, is also a gift from God, one of the tools He has equipped me with as well. And in this regard, I think I can accept, to some degree, the concept of ‘indebted servitude’ as I debt I owe to God and to myself, to use the things He has given me to try to work out how to be happy.

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