Cur Deus Homo I.3-5

(Continuing from our opening salvo on CDH I.1-2)

“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?”

Three initial attempts to answer this question bring us successively closer to understanding it.  At each stage Boso challenges Anselm’s answer and forces him to find a more fundamental level.  The three phases of their argument correspond with chapters three through five:

  1. conveniens (ch. 3)
  2. omnipotent planners can’t fail (ch. 4)
  3. whom shall we serve? (ch. 5)

Beauty, then and now

In chapter three Boso re-introduces the question of the book as a non-believer challenge that the Incarnation is unbecoming the divine nature and to attribute such a thing to God is an injustice.  Right off the bat, to understand all that comes next, we have to look more closely at this “unbecoming” idea.  The Latin is videntur non convenire; these things “seem not to convene.”  What’s that mean?

Convenire is the root of our English word convenient, but in the modern sense of that word the two are in fact false friends.  The Latin means to come together, as when plugs go in sockets or puzzle pieces fit together or the premises of an argument fit together or members of a team work well together.  While the English implies cheap, easy, close at hand, the path of least resistance, the Latin is actually talking about the order and proportion and harmony that make up beauty.

We tend to reject the idea that something is objectively beautiful–eye of the beholder and all that–but we do still have some echoes of the concept in our language and culture.  An elegant solution to a math or coding problem is one which is “objectively beautiful”–if you can’t see that it’s elegant, the problem is you.  Elegance of solution implies surprising simplicity, an order hidden behind apparent chaos or confusion, and some kind of new illumination of or insight into the problem.

This elegance is commonly taken as a marker for truth; consider the persuasive power of Kepler and Newton, moving astronomers to accept heliocentrism centuries before the observational technology existed to confirm that the math was correct.  Or consider Einstein’s supposed acceptance of Lemaitre’s singularity proof (the “Big Bang”) because “math that beautiful can’t be wrong.”  Or the practical certainty that we have of the truthfulness of Reimann’s hypothesis about his zeta function, in part because of how elegantly it explains important truth about the prime numbers.

In all these cases what I have called elegance is simply what would have been called beauty in an older fashion of speaking.  We could give examples for the chess enthusiasts out there, the games that come to be known as “Immortals” (Kasparov’s, Rubenstein’s, Morphy’s, etc.), but time and space want.  In all cases it is what St. Anselm means when he says “convenience.”

Anselm’s immediate answer to Boso’s challenge is to address not the injustice component of the claim but rather to focus on the issue of beauty.  Boso is claiming, on behalf of the non-believers, that the Incarnation is ugly.  Anselm’s reply, fully on the model of Patristic exegesis, is that the Incarnation is supremely beautiful.  If the mark of beauty as we have described above is order, harmony, proportion, symmetry, elegance, what have you, well, the Incarnation has that in spades.  It’s infinitely beautiful!

He cites three examples to illustrate this inner order and surprising elegance, first from Sacred Scripture and then from Patristic exegesis.  First there’s the New Adam typology: just as through the disobedience of a man death came to all, so through the obedience of a man life came to all.  Then there’s the corresponding New Eve that grows from the rib of the first: just as the cause of our condemnation (the forbidden fruit) was carried by a woman, so the cause of our righteousness (Jesus) was carried by a woman.  Finally he gives the more elaborate–elegant!–proportion: just as man was conquered by the devil by eating the fruit of a tree, so did man conquer the devil by the fruit of a tree.  Lo, a chart!

Cur Deus Homo Chart

As Anselm states, the mystical correspondences grow from there.  We have all the features of beauty in play: order, symmetry, surprising illumination, neat twists, proportion, harmony.  Look at that stuff!  It’s awesome!  How could you ever say that the Incarnation is ugly?  Case closed!

Boso’s dissatisfaction with Anselm’s response is very simple, and it no doubt corresponds with an ambivalence in St. Anselm himself: fiction can be beautiful too.

Although willing to admit that these proportions are indeed beautiful, Boso compares them to painting on a cloud or in the water; they lack a substantial foundation.  An argument persuasive to non-believers, he claims, must rest on a solid foundation of rational demonstration.  Conveniens can be a secondary concern, downstream from the initial proof, but it cannot demonstrate the reason or necessity of the Incarnation.  “It would be so lovely!” doesn’t prove anything.


This is an important challenge that should be considered at a greater length than we are likely to afford.  I think most people today would hasten to agree with Boso that conveniens-type arguments are mere window dressing.  Anselm himself seems to agree, since he sets out to meet Boso’s challenge for the rest of the book.  But is Boso actually correct here?  Is the rational demonstration more important than conveniens?

We’ve already said above that beauty is sometimes taken as a marker for truth and appears to be persuasive on its own.  Why assume that most people are moved primarily by the rational demonstration?  Perhaps the conveniens argument is the more fundamental?  But then how to distinguish between the beauty of the real and the beauty of fiction?  Especially problematic when a major component of your tradition is founded on a Book!

It’s worth noting that Anselm does not try to make a distinction between real and fictitious beauty in an attempt to defend beauty as a fundamental proof.  In that sense he seems to endorse Boso’s challenge and sets himself up as the Father of Scholasticism.  Fides quaerens intellectum ad finem!

On the other hand, he does not simply prefer the rational demonstration.  He will go on using the language of conveniens–suitable, fitting, appropriate, etc.–throughout the book.  He’s not simply being perverse, nor reneging on his apparent agreement with Boso.  In an important way, the rest of Cur Deus Homo is an attempt to create a theoretical fusion of the rational demonstration and the beautiful.  There’s probably some dissertation out there on Anselm and method, but heck if I’m going looking for it.

Proving too much?…

Anselm’s second-level argument for the necessity of the Incarnation is a single sentence that sets another major theme for the book.  Rebuffed on the conveniens front, he returns to the ideas of his earlier Proslogion and sketches a claim directly related to divine attributes: God has a plan for the human race and omnipotent planners can’t fail.

Well, it actually looks like this:

“Does not the reason seem necessary enough, why God ought to do those things which we say?  Since the human race, so obviously His precious work, had altogether perished nor was it fitting that what God had proposed concerning Man should be thoroughly voided?”

(Nonne satis necessaria ratio videtur cur Deus ea quae dicimus facere debuerit: quia genus humanum tam scilicet pretiosum opus eius omnino perierat nec decebat ut quod Deus de homine proposuerat penitus nihilaretur?)

When Anselm is challenged to provide a rational demonstration, he doesn’t fool around!  What we have here is a simple reductio claim reaching aaall the way back to some of the earliest claims of his natural theology.  It’s actually somewhat unclear which attribute Anselm is relying on here–it could just as easily be omniscience or wisdom–but the language of failure ties nicely into his discussion of power and impotence in Proslogion.  Either way, sin cannot be allowed to prevail without compromising one or more divine attributes.

Notice, however, that Anselm will not go quietly into that night–the language of conveniens is still here in the form of decebat, “it is [not] fitting, right, proper, suitable.”  We even have bonus points for pretiosus, precious, shortly before.  Anselm does not allow Boso to bar the language of beauty from the rational demonstration, even if proportion alone is (perhaps) insufficient to establish truth.

Perhaps too boldly, as Anselm skirts perilously close to biting off more than he can chew with this claim.  If it is not fitting that “what God had proposed concerning man should be annihilated through and through” (ut quod Deus de homine proposuerat, penitus annihilaretur), then we are immediately in the vicinity of later-era worries over grace, free will, and universalism.  There’s some wiggle-room thanks to the adverbs he uses–omnino earlier and the slightly fuzzy penitus in the given line–but we naturally worry about what God does propose for the human race.  If omnipotent planners can’t fail then is a doctrine of double predestination on the table?  MacDonald universalism?  Do we need to break off and read St. Anselm’s insanely difficult de concordia?

As I tell my students, that’s a worry for another day.  Anselm himself warned us about this problem in his reasons not to answer at the beginning of the book.  What matters for the later course of Cur Deus Homo is a different question about this plan that God has for humanity.  Rather than an anthropocentric worry about who is saved and who is damned, Anselm has a surprising idea in mind.  More on that later.

More substantively, Boso brings us back on point with an immediate challenge to Anselm’s second answer.  All he’s accomplished–assuming his sketch of an argument is sound–is to show that God has to fix the problem of sin.  That doesn’t tell us anything at all about how God has to go about doing it, and that’s the question of the book.  Here, another obnoxious reminder:

“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?”

Boso won’t let Anselm off the hook by a hand-waving argument that God must do something.  His challenge and Anselm’s reply finally bring us to the heart of the matter of the book.  Enough poking around on the garden terrace–the front doors of the mansion await!

A more fundamental answer

In Boso’s mind, it makes far more sense for God to save humanity by means of a delegate or representative, either angel or human.  His motive for this is unexpressed; he says only that the human mind would accept it much more tolerably (mens humana hoc multo tolerabilius acciperet) than if God were to do the deed Himself.

Is this a Jewish concern for the mystery of God?  A neo-Platonic or gnostic concern for the transcendence of the One?  Arianism redivivus?  Or merely borrowing, with a twist, from the Christian’s own commitment to God’s penchant for working through prophets promising to send a Messiah?

Given the nature and purpose of Cur Deus Homo, it seems appropriate for Boso to represent all of these and none.  His claim is St. Anselm’s generic diagnosis of all the historical critics of Christianity, both within and without.  The unique scandal of the Incarnation, for Jew and Greek alike: Christ Crucified.  Even when he is forced to argue in a new key, St. Anselm never abandons his Scriptural and Patristic roots.

Boso’s concrete proposal, that God create a sinless human and send him to do the work of Adam, could be criticized in a number of ways.  The most traditional would be the anti-Arian argument of the Nazianzen: what is not assumed is not healed.  If God were to create a human not born of us, it is not clear how he would be one of us.  How does he share in our nature?  Does it make sense to say that God could miraculously create such a thing?  If not, how would his work do anything on our behalf?

The more humorous criticism, of course, is that God already tried this.  Adam was a sinless human not born of a human, not born of sinful substance.  He had all the advantages of grace and unfallen nature and he still sinned.  Why would trying that again work?  Do we just keep making new iterations of Adam 1.01a, 1.01b, etc. until one of them succeeds?  Is there some reason to think that they will?  And of course there’s still the previous worry about this successful Adam’s relation to the rest of us.

[There is an important ambiguity here that would have to be solved to pursue either line against Boso.  It is an ambiguity that will become vastly more important in the second volume of the book.  It relates directly to my deliberately provocative claim that Cur Deus Homo is not concerned with how God saves us.  The problem is this: to say that God must be one of us to do the work of saving us, we may have to answer the question of how exactly, by what mechanism, we are saved.  For reasons mentioned immediately below, Anselm avoids this entire line.  I’ll revisit this once we get to the conclusion of volume one and I have to justify/walk back my opening claim.]  

Perhaps either of these could be developed to take down Boso’s proposal, but Anselm takes a different tack.  There are certainly responses Boso could make to defend from either of these counters.  Who knows how long a digression Anselm would need to finish this stage of the dialogue?  Anselm does not get trapped by Boso, instead answering in such a way as to make these worries irrelevant.

One of St. Anselm’s primary notes as an author is his ability to identify more basic responses that avoid unnecessary entanglements at more superficial levels.  It is a mark of powerful argument to be generous to the opposition: grant as much as possible and show that they still fail anyway.  It’s also a mark of wise argument to be modest: don’t try to argue for more than is necessary.  Logically these create arguments of greater clarity and insight into the problem; rhetorically they are far more convincing.  Cut through the noise and get to the issue that matters most instead of being distracted by side problems that don’t get to the conclusion any faster.

The problem, as Anselm would have it, is a problem of justice.  Whoever saves the human race, whether God or angel or human, will have title to the service of the human race.  We will owe that savior; we will in strict justice be obligated to serve that savior.  And that’s a huge problem in light of what Anselm and Boso agreed upon in the previous chapter.

Anselm pulls back part of the curtain on the divine plan for the human race that he raised in chapter four.  Part of human destiny, he says, is to be equal to the angels and servants of God alone.  Why is that?  We’ll return there in later chapters.  But granting that point–and Boso is willing to grant it–there is no way for the human race to be saved by any but God alone.  If anyone but God does the saving, the restoration that God needs to effect will not in fact be effected.

For St. Anselm justice is not merely a matter of agreement or fiat.  (Some) rights and obligations are created by actions and exist regardless of the desires of parties involved.  If the Archangel Gabriel saves us from eternal death, we owe the Archangel Gabriel our service.  He cannot simply wave it off and tell us to save our service for God.  The same goes for any other creature that God creates and sends as saving delegate.  We would be servants of God and that creature, and therefore unequal to our original destiny and unequal to the angels who serve God alone.

As will become apparent in the course of the argument, that is a fatal problem indeed.

Where we stand now

At this point Anselm and Boso have walked their way to a narrower corner of the theological field.  Over the course of chapters three through five they have established that sin is a problem, that God has to do something about it, and that it must be God Himself who does the deed–He cannot delegate.  But does that get us all the way to the Incarnation?  Of course not!  We’re still zeroing in on that.

But now the fundamental idea of the book has at last been raised, and it will be the next installments to investigate this more closely: the problem of sin is somehow a problem of justice.  Things get quite a bit more complicated from here on out.

Stay tuned.

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