Cur Deus Homo I.16-18

(Continuing from justice and order in CDH I.11-15)

“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?” (CDH I.1)

Angels.  The answer is angels!

In order to close out his discussion of punishment Anselm has to show hell’s insufficiency for restoring order to the universe.  His strong case for punishment as an instrument of order and beauty in chapters fourteen and fifteen makes that difficult.  If it works so well, why not just let the punishment of hell regulate the order and beauty of the universe and be done with the problem of justice?

The problem, it turns out, is not intrinsic to punishment itself.  Instead the punishment of hell conflicts with God’s original plan for mankind and the universe.  Anselm alludes to this divine plan way back in chapters four and five when setting the initial argument with Boso and insisting that God must do something about sin.  In chapters sixteen through eighteen, Anselm returns to that idea and makes the plan explicit.

Working from his favorite Patristic source, St. Augustine, Anselm extends the idea about the order and beauty of the universe.  As God is supremely wise, all that He does must be supremely orderly and proportional–beautiful, as we have said many times.  Part of the order and beauty of the universe, indeed the pinnacle of that order and beauty, is the City of God, the kingdom of heaven itself.  It is the signet of perfection; that anything detract from this perfection is impossible.

The supreme order and beauty of the City of God no doubt has many aspects, but Anselm focuses on one in particular: it has an ideal number of citizens.  No one can know this number save God, but Anselm commits to there being such a number.  That’s a big problem, since sin destroyed that ideal number.

No, not the sin of Adam.  The sin of the angels.

With the fall of Satan and those who followed him, the kingdom of heaven is deprived of its full complement of original citizens.  God must make up for this lack or His perfect creation will be marred beyond recognition.  This is why God must save humans in such a way as to be equal to the angels: we are destined to be their co-citizens in the kingdom of heaven.  We replace the angels that followed Satan into rebellion; to be true replacements, true fellow-citizens, we must be servants of God alone and equal in justice to the true angels.

That’s right: humans are replacement parts for angels.  Without us, heaven is incomplete and the order of the universe is disrupted.  The streets of heaven are empty, or at least emptier than they should be.  The interpersonal perfections of the City of God are lacking.  Human destiny: to fulfill God’s design for His eternal kingdom.

And if we are all in hell, that ain’t happening!  Punishment solves one disorder of the universe–the one that we ourselves caused–at the expense of an earlier, more serious disorder caused by Satan and the fallen angels.  Hence Anselm rules it out as a solution to the justice problem of human sin.  For understanding the primary argument of Cur Deus Homo, that’s really all there is to that.

The Catholic tradition has not really held on to this idea as a means for understanding human salvation.  As I tell my students, it’s pretty weird…but cool…but weird.  Before moving on to the grand finale of Cur Deus Homo, it’s worth considering a few features of this odd idea.

Where Did This Come From?

While Cur Deus Homo is generally considered St. Anselm’s most original and creative work, and while he devotes time to disavowing a Patristic account of the Devil’s rights over man (CDH I.6-10), he still depends heavily on two key sources that shape his entire career: the Bible and St. Augustine.  For this stage of the book in particular he draws from St. Augustine’s de civitate Dei to craft his argument about mankind and the angels.  In order to see how Anselm expands upon St. Augustine, we have only to connect two commentaries: the creation of angels in Genesis 1 and the fall of Satan in Revelation 12.

St. Augustine spends much of Book XI of de civitate Dei discussing various interpretations of when the angels were created.  He’s a “Day 1 Theorist,” claiming that angels were created on the first day, most probably as the light that God created before creating any of the heavenly bodies that shed material light as we know it.  He considers some other possibilities, including an even earlier creation in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  He even rolls in an interesting idea about God separating light from darkness as a primordial look at the fall of the angels.

This connection to light and the heavenly bodies emerges again in the beginning of St. John’s Apocalypse, where the stars in the hand of “one like a Son of Man” are explicitly named angels of the seven churches (Revelation 1:20).  When finally St. John beholds the fall of the angels in chapter twelve, an easy allegorical interpretation is close at hand:

3 Then a second portent appeared in heaven; a great dragon was there, fiery-red, with seven heads and ten horns, and on each of the seven heads a royal diadem; 4 his tail dragged down a third part of the stars in heaven, and flung them to earth.

7 Fierce war broke out in heaven, where Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought on their part, 8 but could not win the day, or stand their ground in heaven any longer; 9 the great dragon, serpent of the primal age, was flung down to earth; he whom we call the devil, or Satan, the whole world’s seducer, flung down to earth, and his angels with him.

The weaving of these passages, quite surprising to modern readers no doubt, gives all the Patristic commentators (and St. Anselm following them) the confidence to assert precisely how many angels fell with Satan: one third of them.  That’s how many citizens the kingdom of heaven lost when Satan rebelled.

That is Anselm’s starting point for humans replacing angels in the kingdom of heaven.  There must be as many humans in heaven as there are fallen angels.  To get a countable number, we would need to know how many angels God started with.  If He started with 3000, then the human race is in trouble!  If the number is more like 300,000,000,000,000 then the human story has quite a ways to go.

Does God recycle angels?  Does He keep creating them, and losing 1/3 of them?  How do guardian angels fit into this?  Will God keep creating humans after the ideal number of the saved has been reached?  These are the questions my students always ask once they start trying to work out the math of the saved and the damned.

Anselm finds an elegant way around this family of math questions by addressing a more serious worry: if the humans replace the fallen angels on a one-to-one basis, then wouldn’t they ipso facto rejoice at the damnation of another?  Anselm’s highly speculative move is to argue that even the initial number of angels falls short of the ideal number of citizens.  In other words, there must be at least as many humans as fallen angels, but likely more.

It’s a little hard to see how this obviates the worry entirely.  Anselm seems to suggest that as long as there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between saved and damned, the “I took that guys’s spot!” concern disappears.  There only remains the general class-for-class replacement; the nebulous connection between a member of one class and a member of the other (apparently) no longer poses a problem.

Where Is This Going?

Is all this angel-talk and ideal-number theory really necessary?  Our continuing tradition has not found it to be so; this version of the story is always a shock to my students and was to me as well when I first learned it.

Anselm himself seems to have undermined the link between humans and angels by suggesting that God created fewer angels than necessary to begin with.  Or for that matter, why not make an excess number of angels to begin with, foreseeing how many will fall?  In either case, why bother linking human destiny to the fall of angels at all?  It seems easier just to say that God intends for humans as rational creatures to be citizens of heaven, and if we all go to hell than that doesn’t happen.  The later Catholic tradition seems to agree at least implicitly by dropping the angelic line of consideration.

There may be ways for Anselm to punch back against these criticisms.  Inspired by St. Augustine he could insist on a strict reading of “all of creation” groaning in travail and awaiting restoration.  Possibly linking human destiny to an arbitrary will of God raises problems of divine contradictions or poor craftsmanship.  Of course there’s always his loyalty to St. Augustine, even if the Doctor of Grace doesn’t commit to anything nearly so specific as what Anselm aims for here.

On the other hand, Anselm himself admits up front that there will always be deeper and truer reasons for the Incarnation, and that any argument he makes in Cur Deus Homo could be improved.  This angels-humans connection seems like an obvious candidate for improvement: an adornment that was mistaken for a structural component.  It’s also not a bad place for a critic to begin refuting the book.

Still, just because the idea is weird doesn’t mean it is wrong.  Anselm tells a sweeping story in which humans play a role in the grand drama of the universe.  Our modern simplification is remarkably humano-centric and in many respects smaller for it.  An appreciation for the entire universe and a self-escaping enchantment with all its wonders is not a bad outcome from Anselm’s version!

The idea of God’s work being supremely orderly definitely has something going for it, even if our tradition doesn’t use it to explain salvation anymore.  The idea shows up in surprising places throughout the great authors.  I fancy some kind of line of dependence from St. Anselm to Leibniz’s Discourse on Metaphysics 6:

“But God chose the most perfect order, that is, the order that is at once simplest in general rules and richest in phenomena—as would be a geometrical line whose construction was easy yet whose properties and effects were very admirable and very far-reaching.”

But that is surely another game for another day.

Where We Stand Now

All that is a marvelous, glorious aside to an otherwise simple point: God cannot restore order to the universe simply by consigning the human race to eternal punishment.  It would re-assert the divine dominion that humans deny when they sin; it would restore God’s honor by restoring or maintaining the order and beauty of the universe.  But it would create a more serious problem by depriving the City of God of its full complement of citizens.

If the only two ways to restore God’s honor are punishment and satisfaction, and punishment won’t avail, then it remains to consider the possibility of satisfaction.  Somehow the rational creature will have to make amends of his own will, from his own resources.  This is the climactic moment of Cur Deus Homo: how will mankind make satisfaction for sin?

It’s the only option left.  Surely things will go better here!



4 thoughts on “Cur Deus Homo I.16-18

  1. I read this post some time ago but it appears I forgot to hit ‘Like’ or else WordPress forgot I hit ‘Like’. I enjoyed this series of posts very much. As a recent convert I found it very informative. Thank you. I think I would enjoy your classes.
    Hope you’re finding time for the Aki Basho. We’re enjoying the highlights on NHK. Hakuho seems to have this one pretty much in the bag, wouldn’t you say?


    1. Hi Sarah! Long time no see. Glad to hear you liked the Cur Deus Homo series. I can find time to write again sometime soon.

      Aki has been terrific, although I’m disappointed by some of my guys (Mitakeumi, Tochinoshin, Hokutofuji). It does look like Hakuho has this one wrapped up, but I guess you never know what the last two days will bring.


      1. I’ve been cheering those guys on too, but Takayasu has been my favourite this time around. (Harumafuji was my favourite before he had to leave.) Hakuho is a different class of being altogether though. We’ve been hoping that someone could give him some real competition, maybe Kakuryu or Goeido, but they’re all falling back.


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