The doctrine of the necessity of atonement was undoubtedly the most important contribution of the medieval church to the community of the saints throughout the ages. Indeed, the atonement through the life and death of Christ is necessary to reconcile the elects with their Creator as the Scripture clearly teaches (e.g. Matt 26:39, Heb 9:22-28). Of a particular importance, however, is the theory of atonement – an attempt on discovering the reason behind such necessity. This essay attempts to analyze two major views on the medieval theory of atonement: Anselm’s and Abelard’s. We first analyze each view separately to identify its strengths and weaknesses within their cultural –historical context. Subsequently, they are compared to demonstrate that the two seemingly antinomical views indeed enrich each other. The tension and harmony between them are evaluated in light of the Scripture. Finally, we draw some contemporary relevance from such study, especially in terms of evangelism and its devotional value.

Anselm (1033-1109) was a monk-theologian of Italian descent and later installed as an Archbishop of Canterbury. He is regarded as the father of scholasticism and a moderate realist. In his seminal work Cur Deus Homo (1098), Anselm developed a logical reasoning for the necessity of atonement from the basic doctrines of the Scripture – a manifestation of the motto “faith seeking understanding”. The major points of his thesis can be summarized as follows. First, the need for atonement follows from the failure of our first parents to fulfill their obligation in obeying God. Such failure undermines God’s honor. They are unable to pay for such “debt of honor to God” since such act of treason (sin) essentially gives up their freedom for obeying God and henceforth makes them slaves to sin. Likewise, humankind as the descendant of Adam and Eve bears the debt of honor to God which can never be self-fulfilled. Second, why is it necessary for God to provide the means of atonement to redeem humankind? God, out of his freedom and sovereignty, has willed and started a plan to build a holy nation which needs to be completed. Having started with a “complete” number of holy angels, he has foreknown and foreordained some of them to lapse into sin. To ensure the completion of his plan, God has decreed the creation of humankind. Although created holy to replace the fallen angels, God has foreordained the fall of humankind into the temptation of the devil which led to the original sin. Since all have sinned, God, out of a consequent necessity, provides a means of redemption for an elected group of humankind. If God did not do so, it would contradict his goodness and wisdom (and therefore his nature). Third, why does he have to be the God-man? There is no other solution. God cannot simply forego the offense since it contradicts his holiness, justice, honor, and rightness. God would be unjust to do so and hence subject himself under the principle of injustice. Rather than upholding his omnipotence, foregoing the offense out of his arbitrary will would demonstrate his weakness hence undermine his omnipotence and independence. Furthermore, other sinless creatures – be it a hypothetical sinless newly created human or a holy angel – cannot redeem humankind, since being sinless is their obligation and hence has no redeeming value for others. Furthermore, humankind would be slaves of such creature (cf. Rm 6:14-17). Here comes the God-man. On the one hand, the debt of honor was caused by a single act of Adam’s disobedience who acted as the representative of the entire human race. To restore the honor of mankind, the debt should likewise be redeemed through an act of obedience of a man coming from the Adamic line. Here, a man can do what God cannot do. On the other hand, only God can pay for such debt since it is only God who does not owe God. Here, God can do what a man cannot do. It then follows that only the God-man –a person with both divine and human nature– can atone for the sin of humankind. Within the Trinitarian God, the God-man must be the incarnation of God the Son since there would be two divine sons. The fact that he is of a virgin birth – a unique historical event – restores Eve’s honor as Eve was the first to be tempted. The God-man voluntarily offered himself out of obedience to his Father without coercion. Even a bodily injury inflicted on the God-man is a cosmic treason against God. As such, his passion carries an infinite redemptive value which would be sufficient for paying the debt of honor of the entire humankind – if he so willed.

Before we proceed further in assessing Anselm’s view, it should be understood that Anselm lived in the era of feudal monarchy where independent states were being formed throughout the Western Europe. Each of the states was ruled by an autonomous lord. Hence, the concept of honor and, consequently, the debt of honor were relevant in such historical-cultural context. In fact, the use of such terms in Cur Deus Homo is motivated by the objectors of the Catholic faith. Although contemporary saints may view such term as extrabiblical – or even unbiblical – we maintain that such usage is still within the realm of biblical orthodoxy. That is, sin is a transgression of God’s law (1 Jh 3:4). It incurs the wrath of God (Rm 1:18, Rm 5:8-10) as it offends God’s holiness (Lev 19:2, Heb 12:14), which is construed as his honor within such cultural-historical context.

We are now ready to assess the strengths of the Anselmian view. First, Anselm expounded the objective or legal aspect of the need for atonement, that is, to pay back the debt of honor which humankind owes to God due to the violation of God’s holiness. Second, Anselm established the uniqueness of Christ as the only solution for the atonement of humankind. To do so, Anselm successfully applied the Chalcedonian doctrine of the dual nature of Christ – the hypostatic union of divine and human natures within one person. Third, he was the first to argue for the consequent necessity of atonement despite his faulty premise. Pre-Anselm major theologians such as Augustine held that atonement through Christ was a hypothetical necessity. Fourth, he corrected the major fallacy advanced by Origen’s ransom theory which was a common view at the time. The death of Christ was not a payment for the devil since humankind owes nothing to the devil. Instead, it was a payment to God himself.

Despite its strengths, the Anselmian view lacks balance between the objective and subjective aspects of the atonement. To be fair, a subjective aspect of God’s compassion can be found toward the end although it is unclear how such compassion fits in his scheme.  The treatment is in fact cursory as his focus is the forensic aspect of atonement. Another weakness lies in Anselm’s denial of any redemptive value in Christ’s creaturely sinlessness as it is merely a creaturely obligation. While this is true for mere creatures, it is not true for Christ, the God-man. In fact the Scripture stresses the importance of Christ’s sinlessness in relation to his redemptive work (2 Cor 5:21, Heb 4:12). Anselm’s failure to properly address this aspect renders the active obedience of the human nature of Christ redemptively irrelevant. In the Anselmian scheme, only the passive obedience of Christ carries redemptive value. Yet the most glaring weakness is Anselm’s reliance on the number of fallen angels to argue for the consequent necessity of the atonement. Such argument was based on one of the alternative Septuagint translations of Deut 32:8 “He set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the angels of God”. This rendering, however, is simply one of the three predominant alternatives – the other two being “the sons of God” (even “sons of gods”) and “the sons of Israel”. Hence, the consequent necessity of atonement is not sustainable if the key reason emerges from a questionable rendering of Deut 32:8. An alternative reason ought to be sought for.

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was a French Cluniac monk-theologian. A sharp mind with numerous students in his younger age, he was fond of utilizing a dialectical approach to study theology which was perhaps driven by his Aristotelian rationalist tendency coupled with a sense of religious sensitivity. Abelard adhered to a philosophical system called conceptualism, which was a precursor of nominalism. He was engaged in an out-of-wedlock sexual affair with his student Heloise which resulted in her pregnancy and ended tragically with the interference of Heloise’s uncle. Out of anger, her uncle – the canon Fulbert – “had ruffians break in on (Abelard) and emasculate (castrate) him”. His plan to secretly marry his love fell apart. This led him to becoming a monk and Heloise a nun. Such saddening separation from his love profoundly affected him and consequently, his theology.

Abelard’s view on atonement can be found in his commentary on the epistle of Romans which can be summarized as follows. First, Abelard held both the objective and subjective aspects of the atonement although his primary focus is the subjective aspect. Within his view, the governing principle is the dominion of sin where its objective and subjective dimensions are the punishment of sin and the propensity to disobey God, respectively. Second, with respect to the objective aspect of sin, the passion of Christ has removed the guilt and punishment incurred by the original sin from humankind as Christ underwent the punishment in place of humankind. It will become clear that Abelard was indeed a universal redemptionist as his view is fully unveiled. Third, with respect to Anselm, although Abelard held substitutionary atonement and rejected the ransom theory, he blatantly opposed the Anselmian view that teaches the passion of Christ as a payment to appease God’s wrath. He equated Anselm’s notion of the debt of honor to God’s holding us captive. That is, the debt of honor to God was simply a divine counterpart of the ransom for the devil which Abelard dismissed. Fourth, Abelard emphasized the subjective aspect of atonement. Here, the passion of Christ enables a universal equal-to-all prevenient grace of faith which serves as an example and a demonstration of God’s love. Such grace is intended to move humankind onto repentance and love for God –loving and obeying God for who he is, neither because of what he has done for us, nor out of fear of punishment. A person must respond –out of his naturally endowed free will or choice – to partake such grace. According to Abelard, this is the remedy of our selfish nature which is the root of the propensity to sin. Of course, some will respond while others do not.

It is apparent that the strength of the Abelardian view lies within its highlight of the biblical love of God (e.g. Rm 5:5, 5:8, 8:39, Eph 1:5, 1 Jh 4:10). Indeed, the love of God exemplified in the union of the elects with Christ is soteriologically central in the gospel. Not only so, Abelard attempted to strike a balance between the objective and subjective aspects of atonement, which Anselm did not attain in his Cur Deus Homo.

Despite his biblical treatment on the love of God, however, Abelard has denied the need for propitiation –appeasing God’s divine wrath– in his rejection of the Anselmian view. Such rejection is unbiblical (e.g. Heb 9:22) and may have rooted in his equating the debt of honor to God with the ransom paid to the devil. He claimed it would be “cruel and wicked” of God “to require the blood of an innocent man as a price”. It is unclear why Abelard erroneously compares or even equates two categorically-different notions. Sinners owe punishment to God as they violate God’s holiness. But God does not hold humankind “captive” by employing the devil as his “licensed tormentor”. The debt of honor theory simply states that humankind is obligated to pay for their transgression. While he acknowledged the need for expiation (removal of guilt of the original sin), atonement is not complete without propitiation. Hence, the objective aspect of atonement is severely weakened. Furthermore, the Abelardian understanding of grace of faith is semi-Pelagian to the core since it teaches that everyone has the natural ability to freely –and willfully– respond to such prevenient grace and that the grace is universally and equally applied to all. The universality of grace is hypothetical at best since it is evident that not everyone responds (cf. Matt 22:14). It also devalues the atonement as its effectiveness is deemed limited and dependent upon man’s decision despite the universality of its scope. It undermines the sovereignty of God and still leaves an unanswered question: why do some respond and others resist? This brings us to another question which exposes yet another weakness of the Abelardian view: why is the atonement necessary since God’s love could be demonstrated in other ways? To this question, Abelard was silent. Such silence may be construed as hypothetical necessity: God “arbitrarily” wills the atonement. This is indeed consistent with conceptualism which denies the reality of God’s attributes. Such denial leads no basis for God’s will. Consequently, God’s will is deemed “arbitrary” in such metaphysical system.

Now the question arises: who is right? Let’s look at them one at a time. Starting with the Anselmian view, we first compensate for its weakness by replacing the fallen angel argument with the love of God expounded in the Abelardian view. That is, God sends the God-man to die for the elects because God freely and sovereignly chooses to love us and hence he – out of a consequent necessity – provides the means for atonement. His decree of loving us is consistent with his nature and glory. God loving us as the ground for atonement is biblical (Jh 3:16, Rm 5:8, 1 Jh 4:10). Doing so results in a cogent theory of atonement which accentuates God’s love without leaving behind God’s justice. Indeed, God’s love is exemplified in the union of the elects with Christ (Eph 1:4-6) which is the basis of our salvation from election to the final glorification. Second, both the active and passive obedience of Christ ought to be present in his redemptive work. Both schemes lack this aspect. While active obedience of a mere creature –if hypothetically achievable– has no redeeming value for other creatures, the active obedience of Christ the God-man is the foundation for his passive obedience. Without his sinlessness (2 Cor 5:21, Heb 4:12, 1 Pet 2:22) and flawless fulfillment of the law (Matt 5:17, Gal 4:4-5, Phil 2:7-8a), his passive obedience (Gal 1:4, Phil 2:8b) would be meaningless as the sacrifice he brought to God would not be without blemish (Heb 5:8-9, 7:26-28, 9:14). Not only did Christ die for us, but he also lived for us. Therefore, we may add this component into the resultant scheme. Third, the demonstration of God’s love indeed moves the elects onto repentance and love for God as what Abelard taught. Yet this is a result of monergistic regeneration by the Holy Spirit, not our own natural ability (e.g. Ezek 36:26-27, Jh 3:3-8, 6:37, 44, 65, Acts 16:14, Rm 8:30, Phil 1:29). God’s love being universally demonstrated in the passion of Christ is a component of the general gospel calling. But only the elects experience the effectual calling. God loves everyone but the Scripture also teaches that he loves the elects especially. Furthermore, such demonstration of God’s love propels us further onto our sanctification through good deeds, imitation of Christ, loving one another, and serving God (Rm 12:1-2, Phil 2:12-13, 1 Jh 3:16, 4:19). It was portrayed throughout the redemptive history which culminated in the passion and resurrection of Christ (Phil 2:4-11, 3:10). Such love serves as a model for the elects who are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rm 8:29). By attempting to portray the grace of faith in the passion of Christ as universal and ineffectual, Abelard inevitably fell into semi-Pelagianism. This should be avoided at all costs.

The necessity of atonement is indeed a perennial issue. Fundamental to this matter is the antinomical relationship between God’s love and justice. However, “what has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccles 1:9). While it seems that the matter should have been settled in the medieval church –or at least during the Reformation– it keeps resurfacing throughout the church history. For instance, the Abelardian view was resurrected by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) in the form of the governmental theory of atonement. Such semi-Pelagian view resembles that of the Remonstrants and later adopted in Wesleyan Methodism. As expected, the Anselmian view formed the basis for the Reformed view of substitutionary atonement. Nowadays, semi-Pelagianism has influenced a number of evangelical denominations in various degrees by its emphasis on the natural ability of the fallen humankind to respond to the prevenient grace in faith. Over-emphasis on love can also be found in liberal theology which reduces Christianity into a religion of morality. For instance, according to Albretch Ritschl (1822-1889), God is love and that the purpose of his love is the moral organization of humanity in the kingdom of God. Sin is reduced to a feeling of alienation in humankind and the passion of Christ is simply a moral example. Essentially, Ritschl removed the objective aspect from the Abelardian scheme and succumbed into the exemplary view – the scheme which Abelard is often accused of.

The Anselmian view has helped me patch some holes in my soteriological understanding on the uniqueness and necessity of Christ as our Redeemer. Previously, when someone asked me why Jesus is the necessary solution for atonement, I simply tried to demonstrate why Jesus is sufficient and that the necessity follows from the hidden counsel of God. While such answer worked in the past, a devotional reading through Cur Deus Homo has allowed me to address the issue more biblically and with more conviction. Indeed, we may confidently argue that the atonement in Christ is sufficient and necessary –hence the only solution– for redemption. At the same time, Abelard has also deepened my appreciation to the love of God despite his aberrant soteriology. From Anselm I learned that even a bodily injury inflicted on Christ constitutes a cosmic treason against God. Loosely quoting G.C. Berkouwer, God’s remedy is so enormous that our sin must be, too. It then follows that “knowing how enormous my sin is, God’s love must be, too”. And consequently, “God’s remedy is necessarily so enormous that his love must necessarily be, too”. Through his love we are saved (Eph 2:4-5) and given the Holy Spirit (Rm 5:5, Eph 1:12-13). We are called his children (1 Jh 3:1). The more I ponder God’s love and my fallen nature, the more I am overwhelmed. The first stanza of Frederick Lehman’s song captures it well:

The love of God is greater far, than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star, and reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair, bowed down with care, God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled, and pardoned from his sin.

Indeed, his “steadfast love is great to the heavens, (his) faithfulness to the clouds” (Ps 57:10).

Why does God love me? Why does Jesus love me? He does because he freely and sovereignly chooses to do so. His love is unconditional as there is nothing of me deserving his love. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so”. Having acquired deeper appreciation on God’s love which consequently necessitates Christ to live and die for me, I am again reminded that I have been united with Christ in the mind of God “before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4). Such theological truth compels me “to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth,and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:18-19), “know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil 3:10), so that I may be empowered to “deny myself, carry my cross, and follow him daily” (Luke 9:23).

Indeed, the finality and totality of the gospel lie within the cross as the ultimate expression of God’s justice and mercy, judgment and hope, wrath and love (Rm 3:24-2). This is how we shall communicate the gospel to others. Due to the dynamics of relationship and conversation, we are often tempted to present a selective side of the gospel. For instance, we preach only God’s love to the broken while we preach only the “fire and brimstone” to the immoral. We tailor the gospel according to the “need” of the hearer. Although it is important to consider such, the essence of the gospel is simply irreducible. Marginalizing God’s justice while presenting God’s love deflates the love itself. The enormity of God’s love is demonstrated through the demand for justice due to the utmost severity of sin. Likewise, hammering on divine justice without underlining divine love fails to do justice to the gospel. Without true love, the demand for justice is arbitrary and without basis. “Love covers up a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8). Presenting the gospel as it is amounts to proclaiming both love and justice.

As much as I am overwhelmed, however, this is not about me and anyone else. It is for God’s glory alone. Having obeyed his Father, the God-man lived and died to redeem the elects for God’s glory (Jh 12:23, 28-29). In his atoning work, the world was judged and the devil was cast out. When he was crucified, he drew all nations to himself (Jh 12:31-32). He gave us the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit (Jh 14:16-17) so we may remain in him, be fruitful, glorify the Father as the world reckons us to be his disciples (Jh 15:4-8). Yes, we shall be glorified, but we are glorified in him, through him, and for him.

 by Eko Onggosanusi


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