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Why Pastors Should Engage Anselm of Canterbury

I was reminded quite recently how much I don’t know. Granted, it doesn’t take a lot to unveil my ignorance, but as I reflected on this it dawned on me that part of what brought this revelation to light was that I had been listening to conversations around me at a university library where students were wrestling with questions very different than my own. It was a wonderful reminder of the value of entering into new conversations in order to challenge what can so easily become the status quo of my own way of thinking.

Broadly speaking, this is one of the reasons reading Anselm of Canterbury is so valuable. To be sure, he talks about a lot of the same theological topics addressed by our contemporary theologians, but more often than not, he addresses subjects from a very different perspective. He has the ability to make us reconsider.

Why God Became Man

Take the Cur Deus Homo, for instance. That is the work where Anselm discusses the necessity of the incarnation in light of the need for atonement. Plenty of modern pastors and scholars have written on this topic, but few have begun by accepting the challenge to write about why God became a man without talking about Christ (frequently referred to by the original Latin phrase: remoto Christo). How odd, and yet that is precisely what Anselm agreed to do. Why he agreed to do this is, in my view, even more intriguing. His goal was to help his fellow monks think about winsome ways to engage unbelievers. It’s one thing to talk about the incarnation and atonement in terms that make sense to a Christian, it’s quite another to talk sensibly about these truths to someone who has little or no knowledge of the Bible or who rejects the Bible’s authority.

As Anselm’s line of thought unfolds in the Cur Deus Homo, he makes it clear that the category of beauty or, more specifically, fittingness will be his guiding light. From this position, Anselm reasons that if death entered the world because of a man’s disobedience, surely it is most fitting that life should be granted because of another man’s obedience. The problem that immediately presents itself, however, is what man can be perfectly obedient? Good question. Hang on to that.

Anselm continues by reminding us that we believe death entered humanity through a man’s disobedience, but we also believe that the origin of sin in humanity came through a woman, so would it not be right that the eradication of sin be accomplished through one born of a woman? But what woman has ever given birth to a child who can overcome sin? Good question. Hang on to that.

In addition to the part Adam and Eve played in the fall, we know that Satan also played a role by tempting them with what hung from a tree. Does is not seem entirely fitting, then, that the Devil who introduced suffering into humanity through what hung on a tree should himself be defeated by someone hanging on a tree? But what could hang from a tree that could possibly defeat the Devil? Good question. Anselm has opened up a different way of thinking about how we might explain key truths to those who are, themselves, remoto Christo (apart from Christ). Click To Tweet

Over the course of his little book, Anselm weaves these three ideas along with others into a tapestry that reveals the shape of a God-Man (born of a woman) who is perfect in every way (complete obedience) and is therefore entirely suitable as a substitute for the judgment due to humanity. Amazingly, this perfectly obedient God-Man defeated death and the power of the Devil by hanging on a cross (tree).

Some still find Anselm’s approach helpful and applicable; others, not so much. Regardless of whether you agree with the specifics, Anselm has opened up a different way of thinking about how we might explain key truths to those who are, themselves, remoto Christo (apart from Christ).

Does God Truly Exist?

Discussing Anselm’s approach in the Cur Deus Homo challenges a common misperception that medieval Europe was Christian. The people of that time and place were not uniformly, much less consistently Christian. Unbelievers abounded just like they do today, albeit not normally as aggressively as we sometimes encounter them. What this meant for the missionary and pastoral work that Anselm and his fellow monks did was that they needed to prepare responses for people who questioned God’s existence.

The Proslogion is among Anselm’s most famous works because he tackles the question of God’s existence in a provocative and somewhat unusual manner. In what surely is a contender for the prize of most opaque definition of God, Anselm states that God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. As if that weren’t bad enough, in the middle of his book he adds that God is also that than which a greater cannot be conceived. Good grief! Nothing about this way of talking recommends itself as sermon material or helpful when asked for counsel.

The patient reader, however, will be rewarded for taking a step back and appreciating the whole rather than getting lost in the weeds. In essence, the two halves of Anselm’s definition address the immanence and transcendence of God while maintaining a sense of his majesty. What’s really impressive about Anselm’s approach, however, is not so much the definitions, but how he fleshes them out.

In 26 very short chapters (many of them are paragraphs) Anselm makes the case that what matters most in any conversation about God’s existence is not the mere fact of his being, but what kind of being he is. In other words, there is no point in talking about a supreme being if you can’t say anything about his character or person. At the end of the day, who wants to believe in a God who isn’t personal? A God worth getting to know is the God who has already made himself known so that we can know him.

To be blunt, Anselm doesn’t care that God exists; rather, he cares deeply about who God is. This, it seems to me, is the genius of Anselm’s answer – he reframes the question. If God never reveals himself as simply supreme or all powerful or the essence of being, then why should we talk about him solely in those categories? As Anselm is at pains to show, God reveals himself as good, kind, merciful, loving, generous, to name but a few attributes. When addressing the question of God’s existence, should we not talk about him like he talks about himself?

Paul told Timothy to do the work of an evangelist. Whether that work takes place on Sunday morning for guests who have yet to believe or at Tuesday lunch when you’re explaining the faith to a new believer or on Thursday night with university students hungry to know more, Anselm is a helpful companion and one with which pastors would do well to engage.

David Hogg

David Hogg is the senior pastor of Christ Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC. Before that, he was the academic dean at Beeson Divinity School and associate professor of medieval theology. David has published on Anselm and the broader topic of medieval theology in numerous places, most recently in Christian Theologies of Salvation, Anselm of Canterbury: The Beauty of Theology, and The Oxford Handbook of Christology.

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