Anselm’s Theory Of Satisfaction Research Paper Example

Type of paper: Research Paper

Topic: God, Christians, Church, Theory, Sin, Religion, Satisfaction, Jesus Christ

Pages: 6

Words: 1650

Published: 2020/10/17

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Incarnation and Atonement: Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory of Atonement

The doctrine of the merit and satisfaction of Christ’s expiatory sacrifice rose in the Middle Age when questions on the objective efficacy of his redemptive death started to appear (Dupuis 216). In response, St. Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109) wrote his apology that man, by sin, had offended the infinite honor of God and incurred a guilt that was infinite (Bokenkotter 79). According to his theory, adequate satisfaction can only be provided in the infinitely valuable death of the Son of Man, the God-man, for the expiation in behalf of the finite man to atone for his infinite guilt. Logically, this means that the finiteness of man cannot satisfy the infinite offense he made against God by his disobedience through sin. Justice for the infinite cannot be satisfied by any expiation of a finite. Still it must be the offending finite that must satisfy the requirements of justice. It is here where Incarnation comes in; when the God-man, the Son of Man, pays for the debts of finite man as a man and, simultaneously, worthy to make an infinite satisfaction of justice being God. However, questions continue to hound the theory: Does such a view of a punitive God faithfully reflect the God of the gospels? Is Christ’s work intended only for its redeeming function? Thus, a need to answer these questions arises as well as the need to harmoniously combine this doctrine of redemption and the salvific meaning of His incarnation (Dupuis 216). This paper attempts to answer both.

Whatever the model of presentation, the satisfaction theory of atonement, in general, focus on the salvific function of the Cross alone, rather than the entire of the work of God and its ultimate goal (Dupuis 216). Anselm’s theory described the original sin, the sin needing redemption in the Cross, as an “offense” to honor of the God who felt “offended.” It also presents the Father as wrathful, demanding that His Son be killed in a bloody sacrifice as a substitute for mankind in receiving His wrath for their sins (Cooper para.78). It emphasized the supreme justice of God, which made it “impossible for God to forgive sin without demanding satisfaction” (Johnson 508). In doing so, Anselm proposed that original sin incurred a “juridical penalty” that is “infinitely excessive of the offense itself” (Bulzacchelli 53) because of the offense of God’s honor in His being God, the omnipotent and eternal ruler of the entire created order. Consequently and inevitably, he also created a persona of God as a vindictive Master the way the Old Testament predominantly perceived Him and not the compassionate Father that Christ introduced in the gospels.
While this theory satisfies the need to reconcile the “breach” (in a sense of “distance” due loss of grace, not as a “sharp cleavage between nature and grace” that both Anselm and Ratzinger [Introduction to Christianity, 275] mutually do not accept) between God and mankind in the occasion of the grand sin of disobedience in the Garden of Eden (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §615; The Jerusalem Bible, Gen. 3.3-6; Rom. 5.17), it seems to lose sight of original sin, not as a personal and active sin of mankind, but as the absence of the divine sanctifying grace (Pohle n. p.). It also humanized God in His susceptibility to the “hurt” that sins supposedly caused upon Him, undermining the infinite generosity and love of God, which make it difficult to imagine that hurt could disturb such infinite fullness. Furthermore, Bulzacchelli noted that such perspective reduced God to the likes of the pagan deities with their “limited, even petty, all-too-human, and indeed, sin-inspired perspectives” (54). It represented God as dependent upon human beings for His need of recognition (‘respect me’) and coercive superiority (‘or I will punish you’).
The theory, however, appeared consistent with the Catechism’s “substitution of the suffering Servant” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §615) and of Jesus’ atonement “for our faults” and making “satisfaction for our sins to the Father.” Moreover, it appeared to affirm the Pauline teaching on the “verdict of condemnation” (The Jerusalem Bible, Rom. 5.16) and of the satisfaction of Christ (The Jerusalem Bible, Rom. 5.17-19), of the dichotomous mystery of salvation that “only God could do it” and simultaneously “only a man ought to do it” (Cessario 85). Ratzinger, however, clarified that Anselm’s satisfaction is different to the foundational doctrine of vicarious atonement and to the Pauline theology of infusion (Bulzacchelli fn. 9). Atonement is about reconciling mankind to God (The Jerusalem Bible, 2 Cor. 5.19), a drawing of all to Himself (Pope Paul VI para.3), and not about a punitive justice satisfied. Infusion effects the justification of man through the free infusion of sanctifying grace, which obliterates sin (Pohle n. p.), and not as a consequence of having made the payment of sinfulness (The Jerusalem Bible, Rom. 3.24). Atonement, therefore, resulted not from the payment of aboriginal debt, but from the free gift of the sanctifying grace.

Aquinas’ theory of the original sin

The Thomasian view looks at sin, including original sin, not as something that “offends” but something that removes from mankind “something necessary,” which is the “God in us” or that sanctifying grace of God that exists in us (Cooper para.70). Sin is viewed as a deprivation of God in mankind. This separation from God in a state of depravity, not the “offending” act of sin, aggrieves God. This view is consistent with the infinite love of God who “suffers” the loss of someone loved, not because of His “anger,” but because of his free will that rejected His love (The Jerusalem Bible, Lk. 15.13); that is, to throw away the God in him through mortal sinfulness because mortal sin is incompatible with sanctifying grace (Pohle n. p.). For Aquinas, satisfaction is not a requirement of God for man, or even from Jesus, as a condition of reconciliation and for accomplishing a saving plan in the sense of “paying for the offense” (Cooper para.82). Instead, satisfaction is something that accomplishes His plan of bringing all men and women “into loving union” with Himself (Cessario, The Godly Image, xviii; Pope Paul VI, para.3) in the same sense as Isaiah’s “delight yourself in fatness” (The Jerusalem Bible, 44.2); of bringing life to their mortal bodies dead in sin (Pope Paul VI para.4).

The Role of Incarnation

The Incarnation of the Son of God effectively introduces into the world sanctifying grace (Cessario, “Circa” 75). Ratzinger (Introduction to Christianity, 174) views the event as, by His infinite generosity, God’s outpouring of Himself to the human race in an unconditional act of love and will to gift Himself to mankind. With his analogy of the worldly ruler and a subject who broke the covenant, Anselm distorted this viewpoint with the suggestion that the goal of the Incarnation is really for God to receive His due through retributive justice, to satisfy a cosmic order that He bind Himself, to satisfy the divine “anger” with Christ as its object in substitution for mankind and consummated through the Passion and in the Cross (Bulzacchelli 53).

The Ratzingerian Verdict

Ratzinger recognized the shaky ground that Anselm’s satisfactory theory of atonement rests. Despite the perfect logic that Anselm utilized to explore the themes of atonement and incarnation, he insisted that the theory of satisfaction established a “divine-cum-human legal system,” which distorted the gospel perspectives with the theory’s “rigid logic” and “make the image of God appear in a sinister light” (Introduction to Christianity, 174). Unfortunately, it had a decisive effect on the Western Christendom in the second millennium and extensively molded the Christian general consciousness (Introduction to Christianity, 172-173). Perhaps this extensive impact explains how the teachings of atonement in the Catechism (§615) comes very close, if not almost identical with, Anselm’s theory of atonement.
Moreover, the satisfaction theory viewed the divine scheme of Christian redemption “cruelly mechanical and less and less feasible” (Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 172). As a consequence, it put western Christian theologians along deformed lines, which, Ratzinger estimated, would need a rethinking of the whole puzzle along the teachings of the ancient Fathers of the Church as a means of purifying current theology.


Despite its good intentions, Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement inadvertently distorted the true meaning of atonement and redemption, and thereby the purpose of Incarnation, which resulted to the casting of God as a retributive and putative God of justice akin to how Greeks characterized their gods. Aquinas’ conception of the original sin as a deprivation of the free gift of sanctifying grace pointed out the weakness of the theory in its unbalanced focus towards retributive justice as a basis for atonement. Ratzinger also found the satisfaction proposal as distortive of the real message of the gospels: God’s desire to be united with mankind despite their sins.
The shortcoming of this theory, however, must be understood in the context of the apologetic goal for which such discourse was made: the clarification and defense of the doctrine of the Incarnation before an audience with no previous point of reference (Bulzacchelli 54). From the premise of doubt that described the mind of his audience, it was almost inevitable for Anselm to inadequately find sufficient time and necessity to expound completely and with superior depth so profound a question. In the light of his experience of covenantal love, “the true reference point for Christology and soteriology” (Bulzacchelli 54), he did recognize the limits of his argument: even granting that God ensures justice in the face of evil, in what manner can a finite man, who is far too small for the infiniteness of God, commit an infinite offense? (Flinn 27)
While the satisfaction theory of atonement by St. Anselm of Canterbury turned out to be plagued with imperfections and theological shortcomings based on today’s standards, the Christian Church, nonetheless, gained important grounds in understanding the mysteries of the atonement, justification, and Incarnation from which current Catholics benefited significantly.

Works Cited

Anselm. Cur Deus homo; cited in N.S. Deane (Trans.). St. Anselm, Basic Writings: Proslogium,
Monologium, Cur Deus Homo & Gaunilon’s In Behalf of the Fool, Second Edition. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1974.
Sacrifice in the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI.” Antiphon 2009: 51-64.
PDF file.
Bokenkotter, T. Essential Catholicism: Dynamics of Faith and Belief. New York: Doubleday
Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1986. Print.
Bulzacchelli, R.H. “The Еσχατος Aδά and the Meaning of Sacrifice in the Theology of Joseph
Ratzinger/Benedict XVI.” Antiphon 2009: 51-64. PDF file.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition. Vatican. Print.
Cessario, R. “Circa res aliquid fiit” (Summa theologicae II-II, q. 85, a. 3, ad 3): Aquinas on
New Law Sacrifice.” Nova et Vetera, English Edition 3 February 2006: 73-89. PDF file.
Cessario, R. The Godly Image: Christ and Salvation in Catholic Thought from Anselm to
Aquinas. Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications, 1990. Print.
Cooper, A.M. Church I: Baptism & Eucharist. Westminster, CO: The Catholic Gospel Project,
2013. PDF File.
Dupuis, J. (Editor). The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, 7th
Edition. Staten Island, NY: Alba House Publishers, 2001. Print.
Flinn, F. K. Encyclopedia of Catholicism. New York: Facts on File Inc., 2007. Print.
Johnson, E.A. “Mary and the Female Face of God.” Theological Studies 1989: 499-526. PDF
Pohle, J. "Sanctifying Grace." The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 6. New York: Robert
Appleton Company, 1909. Print.
Pope Paul VI. Lumen Gentium: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Vatican: 1964. Print.
Ratzinger, J. Introduction to Christianity (trans. J.R. Forster). San Francisco: Ignatius Press,
1990. Print.
Ratzinger, J. “In the Beginning”: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the
Fall (Trans. B. Ramsey). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995. Print.

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