Cur Deus Homo, or Why the God-Man, is not concerned with the question of how God saves the human race. Now let’s spend a few posts defending that claim and maybe walking it back a little.
St. Anselm is often called the Father of Scholasticism; the introduction to his masterpiece, Cur Deus Homo, marks him as the Father of Modern Academic Writing. Academia is full of writing like this, with extraordinary attention to framing the question, managing expectations, anticipating and defusing objections, and generally trying to talk ourselves and our audience out of the project altogether. Appearing in a work this old seems wildly out of place; there’s something almost neurotic about St. Anselm’s preemptive apologia in this landmark work of Christology.
St. Anselm was a philosopher-monk at heart, a man who wanted nothing better than to meditate in his cell and uncover the mysteries of the Mystery for an audience of one. Much to his later sorrow, his intellectual greatness and association with that worldly genius, Lanfranc, conspired to draw him into the world of public disputation and argumentative theology. In an earlier foray into that public arena St. Anselm got burned, fighting over the Trinity and defending himself against accusations of heresy. It was simply not a mode of discourse that suited his temper.
So when, just a few years later, he sallied forth to answer the masters of Laon in Cur Deus Homo, he began his work with much greater care. That care must be closely attended so as not to go astray in understanding his subsequent argument.The first two chapters of the book represent St. Anselm’s own inner conflict over answering the question at all; he feels the heavy responsibility of answering this “outsider challenge” to the faith yet understands the corresponding risk involved in answering such a question–all while being gun-shy from his previous public failures.
What is this corresponding risk? To understand that, we must be very precisely clear on what question the work is meant to address. If one were to ask “Why does God save Man?”, St. Anselm would have a simple and ready answer. He could point to about a hundred different passages in Sacred Scripture, he could draw on any of the Fathers of the Church, and of course he could work from his favorite author–from memory, no doubt!–St. Augustine. The tradition has answered this question; nay the tradition is founded on this answer. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, so that all who believe in Him should not perish but have life eternal” (John 3:16).
In other words, that’s not a question worth writing a book about. Not for St. Anselm. The Church already wrote it.
No, Anselm and Boso, the characters of Cur Deus Homo, explore a much more pointed question, and one whose answer is not to be found in anything so simple as a Scriptural proof-text or a Patristic homily. The question of the book is rather, “Why does God save Man by means of Incarnation when he could have done it some other way?”
This is a new question. No one in the tradition had ever asked it before; arguably, it’s not the kind of question that could arise from within the tradition. At the very least, we know that it did not so arise, for it is the question of the masters of the secular school at Laon and the increasing presence of Jewish thought in western Europe. It is an outsider question, and it is precisely because of this public, outsider, academic origin that St. Anselm feels he must answer.
At the same time, St. Anselm recognizes that any answer he gives will by necessity be speculative, original, and not directly founded on the tradition. He will, in other words, be working without a net. He has to answer, no one else seems up to the task, the world is watching, and the last time he tried this he got burned not only by his adversaries but even by his allies. Gulp.
Three Reasons Not to Answer
So he begins with three reasons not to answer the question at all, to pack up and go home and let the masters of Laon have the field. Why not retreat into a studied fideism or obscurantism here? Well, he is the doctor of fides quaerens intellectum, after all… His inner student, Boso, prevails upon his inner teacher, Anselm, at each reason. He was duped, and he allowed himself to be duped…by himself! These three fears are the fears of every teacher of the faith, as far as I can tell.
- Bad answer = No answer?
- Too much prior knowledge needed
- Infinitely beautiful content = infinitely beautiful response?
The first is a rhetorical worry directly related to the public nature of the dispute outlined above. St. Anselm fears that, should he give a bad answer–entirely possible given the parameters of the question–his audience will conclude that there is no answer. That’s no mere academic concern, nor a fear for loss of reputation only. If the non-Catholics of Laon can pose an outsider challenge that the Defender of the Faith cannot answer, at least some will conclude that the Faith is deficient. Forget about the crowing of Laon; this is a matter of Catholics losing their faith or potential converts abandoning their pursuit of it.
Boso’s reply to this is what we must all tell ourselves when facing the same fear: this is vanity. St. Anselm is not the Defender of the Faith, and if he’s not then I’m definitely not. God is. God defends the faith, God inspires faith, God draws all to Himself. St. Anselm, despite being about a hundred times more intelligent than I am, is just as crude an instrument in God’s hands as I am. Speak boldly, do your best, and believe that God is doing all the most important parts of the work. You cannot put the outcome of preaching the Gospel on your own shoulders. You cannot engineer the salvation of others. It’s Satanic pride, Milton-style.
The second reason not to answer is something I tell my students almost every day: if St. Anselm were to prove everything from the ground up, from first principles, the book would be ten thousand pages long. This is no simple question with a quick answer; it is a deep-dive into the sources of the tradition and the theological ideas that grow from it. We’re far, far downstream from “God is and rewards those who seek Him.” We’ll be touching on vast topics that we can’t possibly prove from the beginning, all of which are their own book(s).
Boso’s reply here, like his first, shifts the burden from St. Anselm. Let each of the foundational topics be its own module; indicate them, state their conclusions, and let it be the student’s job to delve into them. If a listener doesn’t understand enough about divine power, or necessity, or the nature of justice, that’s his or her problem. Serious questioners will take it upon themselves to go to the sources and learn what they must. St. Anselm can’t take it upon himself to directly dispel all the ignorance of his audience. It takes three to preach the Gospel: God, a preacher, and a hearer of the Word.
The third and final reason not to answer is a point that Hans Urs von Balthasar would make his theme many centuries later: a truth of such beauty as the Incarnation deserves an equally beautiful presentation, perfection matched with perfection, a beautiful gem in a suitably beautiful setting. That’s impossible; the Incarnation is infinitely beautiful and infinitely surpasses any best attempt St. Anselm could ever put forth.
Boso’s third reply ends on a funny note. He’s shifted the burden from Anselm twice already, first to God and then to the audience. Here, he simply agrees that his teacher is not up to the task. What else could he do? The limitation here is not set down to any peculiar defect of St. Anselm, but to the infinite beauty of God surpassing all human achievement. But there is still the monastic hope, and perhaps a hidden echo of monastic obedience. Anselm can be the first step, the roughest of rough drafts, toward a better answer given countless generations from now. Someone has to lay the first stone of Chartres Cathedral, after all.
Four Ground Rules
Having persuaded himself to proceed, Anselm finally lays down four caveats for his audience.
- Joint investigation vs. Proof
- maior Anselmo
- Infinite Object
In the first place Anselm protests that, while he will proceed, he will do so not in the mode of a demonstration but rather as a co-seeker with his student Boso (non tam ostendere quam tecum quaerere). This is a bit disingenuous since the book, despite being a dialogue between teacher and student, is still largely a chain of demonstrations leading to a final reductio ad absurdum. On the other hand it does justify the format of the book, however imperfectly realized it is at times. In dialogue St. Anselm can put ideas on the table that he knows are not quite right and refine them with the challenges of Boso. Just getting everything stated is half the battle; the role of the student turns out to be indispensable here. Perhaps more importantly for St. Anselm, it fits nicely with his next caveat and serves as its introduction.
As stated previously, this question is a new question and there is no clear answer in the tradition for St. Anselm to roll out. In his second ground rule he explicitly acknowledges this problem and insists that Cur Deus Homo is a work of speculative theology. No matter how good his reasoning appears, any conclusions he reaches that are not expressly confirmed by higher authority–Scripture, Tradition, councils, etc.–must be taken as merely provisional. There’s a giant “Maybe” at the front of this book, and if any of it runs afoul of the Tradition–either now or at some time in the future–then burn it.
If the Tradition sets an absolute horizon for the certainty of the book, another, more immediate limitation must also be observed: the human limits of Anselm himself. The third caution connects back to Anselm’s first objection to answering the question in the first place; even the parts of Cur Deus Homo that are well-argued and seem most persuasive could always be argued better–more forcefully, more clearly, more persuasively–by someone greater than St. Anselm. Here Anselm acknowledges his own limits by embracing Boso’s third reply from above, that this work is at best the first step of a rough draft.
Finally Anselm collects all the above and repackages the most principled worry as a warning. Whatever else is true, the object under study–the inscrutable divine will of the infinite God–infinitely exceeds any human attempt to master it. This goes far beyond the limits of sandbox natural theology that you can drill into any child. Even in proving the existence of God or some basic divine attributes we have to proceed by negation, never able to directly apprehend the object of inquiry. But this! This goes far beyond that pedestrian problem. Now we want to know why that transcendent God thinks what He thinks and wills what He wills. Good luck with that! And so no matter how excellently the book concludes, there will always by definition be reasons beyond the surface that the human mind is able to feebly scratch.
And with all that, Anselm is ready to begin. The argument will unfold in stages, with new elements of the answer uncovered at each new challenge raised by Boso. The fundamental question will always be this:
“By what reason or necessity did God become man and by His death, just as we believe and profess, return life to the world when He was able to do this through another person, either angelic or human, or by His will alone?”
(qua scilicet ratione vel necessitate Deus homo factus sit et morte sua, sicut nos credimus et confitemur, mundo vitam reddiderit; cum hoc aut per aliam personam, sive angelicam sive humanam, aut sola voluntate facere potuerit.)
The accuracy of my opening claim–that this book is not concerned with answering how God does this–will be put to the first test in the next installment. Just how much will I have to walk this claim back?