Why God Became Human

This morning I read one of Church history’s earliest, strongest and most logical defenses of the Incarnation: Cur Deus Homo. While the author, Anselm, is quite verbose at times and though working through all of his logic is often a challenge, he raises many good points. Often criticized and blamed for seeing salvation in terms of atonement (or satisfaction) only, given his feudal, law-court context, what else could be expected? While Anselm raises other serious theological questions in this work (e.g. the use of philosophy and reason in theology, free will, hamartology, etc.), I have focused below on his logic of the central tenets of Cur Deus Homo: incarnation and soteriology.

Feel free to comment on this brief review:

Around the year 1100—a time period sated with ecclesiastical and feudal controversies—Anselm of Canterbury completed one of his most renowned works: Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Human). Cast in a dialogical mould, the treatise attempts to portray a reasoned or logical conversation between two monks: Anselm and Boso. The work was quite unique for its time as it sought to prove—through using sheer reason alone—the necessity of God’s becoming human. Thus, in the preface, Anselm makes his readers aware that in what follows, he will ultimately seek to “remove Christ from sight” and proceed “as if nothing were known of Christ”—ironically, all of this is done to in the end, actually prove that humanity surely does need Christ!

It seems that Anselm’s logic begins with the absolute: Nothing is greater than God. It follows from this, then, that: “The will of every rational creature must be subject to the will of God.” Yet, the problem is that this rarely happens. Instead, humans turn from God’s will, an action or actions which Anselm defines as “sin.” As Anselm argues, “To sin is nothing else than not to render God His due.” Herein lies another question: How does He who is greater than all but has been sinned against by a lesser being, both defend His honor and at the same time, allow the human to enter back into a state of right standing with Him?

If God forgives the sinner for his or her “sin out of mercy alone…[that] is the same as not to punish it.” In Anselm’s view, allowing such an “inordinate” act ultimately renders God unjust. So, God cannot simply hand out mercy tokens and look past the sinner’s wrongdoing. Thus, it is necessary—if God is to be rendered just—to have “satisfaction” made. Yet, Anselm argues that for true justice to come from satisfaction, “something greater” than the one being paid the satisfaction (in this case, God), must be given. However, such a “gift can be found neither beneath Him nor above Him.” Yet, he is relentless about the fact that something must be paid. So, here, the question arises: How, then, can a human finally satisfy this exalted God who demands justice? The answer is: The human cannot make the appropriate satisfaction!

From here, Anselm argues, “But only a man [sic] ought to make this satisfaction. For in any other case it would not be man who makes it.” In short, Anselm is still holding humans responsible for their sins against God. Yet, he also urges that: “only God is capable of making [the necessary] satisfaction.” The only way out of such a tangle is that a human who is also divine must make the required satisfaction. The necessary satisfaction, then, “must be found in [God]…therefore, He will give either Himself or something belonging to Himself.” This, then, is why God ultimately became human. The result of such a “God-man” was not that the divine nature was swallowed up by the human nature or visa versa (as might be found in some versions of: Apollinarianism, Nestorianism or Eutycheanism) or that the two natures “mingled and formed a third nature” (as might be found in some versions of: Monophysitism or Monothelitism). Instead, the individual was (and must have been!) both “fully divine and fully human…For only one who is truly divine can make satisfaction, and only one who is truly human ought to make it.”

Just as well, the God-man must assume His human nature from the race of Adam and not some super, supra or proto human being. This is the case because, in the end, this person who has not “descended from Adam’s race,” would not be able to make satisfaction for it. Thus, not only did God merely seek to become human but so that He could make the proper satisfaction, He also sought to become human through Adam’s race. But another questioned remained: Can God, who is sinless, incorruptible and immortal really die? Anselm answered, “Yes,” because He is “omnipotent” and therefore “able to lay down His life and take it up again.” Further, the God-man didn’t die because He had to pay recompense for His own wrongdoing; instead, by “free will” He chose to lay down His life so that the race of Adam might receive the “fruit” of His death—salvation, a “reward” from the Father. In return for the gift of salvation, which Jesus passed on to humans, those who became “heirs of the reward” and “shared in His merit” were to “live under His grace” and become like Him—godly.

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