Improving Anselm’s Atonement Theory
Anselm’s satisfaction theory (explanation here) has shaped Western atonement theory. Unfortunately, Anselm’s theology “went wrong” in two ways: (1) Anselm himself overlooked key parts of biblical theology, and (2) then latter theologians misinterpreted Anselm.
Making Anselm More Biblical
Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo provides a helpful starting point for contextualizing the atonement in terms of honor-shame, but his satisfaction theory could be more biblical in key ways.
One, the Father in Anselm’s theology plays a rather passive role of receiving honor from the cross, as though Jesus saves people from God. But in fact, Jesus saves as God. God takes an active role in sending his own son to demonstrate his love (cf. John 3:16). God in Christ suffered deeply to win back the nations. The triune God actively pursues and procures the restoration of all things for the glory of his grace.
Two, we can affirm Anselm’s basic concepts—God deserves honor; our sin dishonors God; his honor must be restored—but should clarify how Jesus’ death gives honor to God. For Anselm, God is righteous because he demands honor like an absentee noble. But in the New Testament, God demonstrates his righteousness (i.e., honorability, the fact that he requires/demands honor) by actively saving. The cross honors God by fulfilling God’s promise of universal blessing and enacted a new covenant (Gal 3:8; Romans 3:3–7; 15:8). To Anselm, God is righteous because he demands honor in order to save man; but in the New Testament, God is righteous because he displays his honor by saving the nations. God is righteous because he is a loyal patron who keeps his word and remains faithful to his commitments. The gift of Jesus Christ is “God’s fulfillment of longstanding promises made to Israel, presenting God as a reliable benefactor who has ‘kept faith’ with his historic body of clients (Lk 1:54, 68–75; Acts 3:26; Rom 15:8)” (deSilva, HPK&P, 128). The cross honors God by proving his loyalty and faithfulness.
In short, Anselm should have interpreted the cross in light of God’s OT covenant with Israel. These adjustments would make Anselm’s “satisfaction” theory of the atonement more in line with New Testament theology. (For more, see Wu, SGF, 193–292).
Anselm’s Satisfaction ≠ Penal Substitutionary Atonement
Reformed scholars after 1600 reformulated Anselm’s “satisfaction” theory into the “penal substitutionary atonement” (PSA) model. Because of this, contemporary evangelicals often misinterpret Anselm’s theology through the lens of the PSA. Terms like “satisfaction,” “justice,” and “payment” are read in light of the Reformers legal values, not the Anselm’s feudal values of honor and shame.
The Reformers rightly found shortcomings in Anselm’s atonement theory. But part of this was simply a cultural difference—the moral logic of suzerain–vassal relationships no longer resonated with the Reformer’s Enlightenment worldview. So they modified Anselm by inserting a socio-moral logic (i.e., punitive justice, penal substitution) that made more sense for their context.
The PSA combines “penal” with “satisfaction”—i.e., salvation happens through punishment. Ironically, this blatantly contradicts Anselm. For Anselm, divine punishment is not a repayment or “satisfaction.” Jesus paid our honor debt so that we are not punished. For example, in banking, a debtor who repays his debt does not face punishment. In Anselm’s words, “it is necessary either for the honor that has been removed to be repaid or else for punishment to result” (I:13, emphasis added). Anselm again says, “either satisfaction or punishment must follow upon every sin” (I:15, emphasis added). For Anselm the cross is not God’s punishment, but a gift that satisfies our debt so that man is not punished. Louis Berkhof himself notes, “Anselm looks upon satisfaction as a [honor-restoring] gift rather than as a [wrath-appeasing] punishment ” (History of Christian Doctrines, 175).
Reformed theologians rightly observed Anselm’s atonement is not entirely biblical and does need some improvement. However, we can improve Anselm’s theology without discarding the patronage logic of honor-shame with the courtroom logic of punitive justice. The framework of covenant retains both dimensions, and draws us closer to the NT theology of Jesus’ atoning death.