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.


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3 Comments on “Improving Anselm’s Atonement Theory

  1. Fine post, solid logic. I have been looking for a way to tighten my understanding of honor/shame in the Atonement, and this does the job for me.

  2. Thanks for these two posts on the Satisfaction metaphor and how it relates to Penal Substitution. I think your observation of how cultural lenses shaped the way the Bible was read is correct and helpful. It reminds us that all our readings of Scripture are seen through a contextually shaped lens which determines what we will emphasize and what seems obvious to us, as you illustrated well with both these metaphors. That said, I wonder if the “framework of covenant” mentioned in the final sentence really “draws us closer” to a truer understanding of Jesus’ atonement, or if this is another parallel metaphor like Satisfaction and Penal Substitution seen through a particular lens? I suspect that Anslem and Penal Substitution advocates today (for example Wayne Grudem) were / are well aware of the covenantal aspects of the cross, yet would argue that their particular perspective is closer to the heart of the atonement.

  3. Having struggled with the gospel as it relates to Honor/Shame worldview for over a decade now, Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory helps me understand how it could work. Being a Westerner, Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory is what I was taught and what continues to be my “default”, and seems the most “biblical”. Seeing how Anselm’s theory was so culturally conditioned, I can now see how PSA is also culturally conditioned. I don’t just want a theory that can be biblically supported, I want to understand the Atonement as the Bible presents it. Does that mean then, that we must understand the culture of the biblical times to understand it? (Which biblical time? That’s a 4000 year time spread! Which culture, Jewish, NT Mediterranean?) Or does the Bible even lay out a clear and thorough explanation of how the Atonement works?
    Is Anselm’s theory relevant today? Perhaps to Muslims who think of themselves as “slaves” to Allah, Anselm’s view can have explanatory power.

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