I’m close to wrapping up my extended lesson on St. Anselm’s terrific Cur Deus-Homo (Book I). In a past life (grad school) I spent a considerable amount of time with the so-called Satisfaction Theory of the atonement. Like a lot of my work in those days, most of what I read on the subject contained a lot of heat but little light…or reverse that if you are looking for warmth I guess.
One of my pet-peeves is how the title of the work is often badly translated into English, which is why I’ve hyphenated the Latin as I do here. Imagine Guy of Gisborne, “Why a God-Man, cousin? Why not an angel, or a man?” Then imagine St. Anselm roaring in frustration like the late, great Alan Rickman. That’s what the book is about: why does God save us from sin and death with the Incarnation when it seems like he could have done it in a lot of other, possibly better ways?
It’s no idle point: if you turn this into a general theory of the Incarnation or the mechanism of salvation, you will seriously alter what St. Anselm is trying to do. Here’s the slimmed down logic of the whole thing:
Sin is a Problem that needs Solving.
Three solutions are possible: God does nothing and blows it all off, God punishes Man, Man renders satisfaction to God.
Anselm shows the first is impossible (for a lot of reasons) in chapters 12-13.
Anselm shows that the second is impossible (because of His divine plan for heaven) in 14-19.
Anselm shows that the third is impossible (because of the limits of human nature) in 19-25.
The oddity of the book is that his thesis is front-loaded and there is basically no return to it at the end. The solution to this log jam is the Incarnation, as he said at the beginning. Jesus Christ is the only way to fix the problem of sin. As man He fulfills the role of the one who must needs make satisfaction. As God He actually has the power to do it.
The overarching concern of the book is the same problem that St. Anselm raises in Proslogion 9-10: how can the perfections of justice and mercy both be found in God if they are, as we often think, contraries? Cur Deus Homo extends the answer given there. Justice and Mercy are both perfectly realized in Jesus Christ. God cannot be made the Merciful One at the expense of Justice without reducing Him to a human construct. The Incarnation destroys this false-idol approach to God.