Friday, September 8, 2023

Anselm and the Reformation…


…give or take a few hundred years.

Did the theology of Anselm, so early in the history of Scholasticism, pose a total contrast with the Reformation, or did the heart of Anselm’s theology – the gospel of Jesus Christ – pave a foundation for the Reformation?

The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, by Matthew Barrett

As I have come to learn, and have commented before, Luther’s protest hit a nerve not due to any doctrinal disputes, but due to the corruption in the church – specifically, indulgences. 

A month or so before his infamous ninety-five theses, he posted ninety-seven theses.  None of the ninety-seven had anything to do with indulgences, and the posting made not a dent in the history of Christendom.  The ninety-five, however, had in its sights indulgences – and this is where the initial battle lines were drawn, and from here, further positions on both sides hardened.

Why do I begin here?  If the answer to Barrett’s question is that Anselm paved a foundation for the Reformation, it doesn’t therefore follow that it is somehow a path away from Rome – nor does Barrett suggest this.  The point, as is the case throughout Barrett’s book, is that the doctrines found in the Reformation had roots – roots that trace back to the earliest of Christian understanding of Scripture and the Gospel.

With that laborious introduction out of the way, on to Barrett:

For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand.

-          Anselm, Proslogion

Anselm would use the Scholastic method to come to his understanding.  To get a strawman out of the way… Scholasticism is sometimes caricatured or misunderstood as restricted to specific philosophical content, it is better understood as a method.  Prose and argument based on the dialectic method: concepts, distinctions, definitions, and propositional analysis.

Criticized for debating infinitesimal questions and exercises in speculation, Scholasticism is better understood as seeking truth and seeing the logic in the Christian faith.  Lecture, meditation, a question submitted, and disputation.  This was the framework of the Scholastic dialogue.

Hence, when Luther disputed Scholastic theology (really the theology of the later Scholastics), he did so using the Scholastic method – that of disputation.  The entire purpose of his ninety-five theses was to open the door to disputation.

Anselm, while learning from his teacher Lanfranc, is considered as foundational to the Scholastic method and to the idea of faith seeking understanding.  While some see Scholasticism as dry logic chopping, an encounter with Anselm would certainly disabuse one of this notion.

Lanfranc understood that reason and faith go hand-in-hand.  Reason was not to be the be-all-and-end-all, but where reason exposed legitimate faults in an authoritative position, this must be confronted.  It was to be reason in service of theology.

Anselm would write several books, beginning with Monologion.  The purpose of this was to demonstrate the rationale and logic of their Christian beliefs using reason alone.  While some later interpreters accused Anselm of being a rationalist, they were mistaken.  Anselm instead believed that Christian beliefs were rational.

Anselm summoned reason because reason was from God, and reason, in its most perfect form, is God.

Of all the things that exist, there is one nature that is supreme.  He would develop this into an understanding of the Trinity, an understanding that was foundational for the Reformers. 

His next work was Proslogion: could Anselm demonstrate, through reason, that God exists and the He is the supreme good?  This reason would rise up to contemplate God.  This reason required faith (as all reason ultimately does); as Anselm would write: For I believe this also, that “unless I believe, I shall not understand.” [Isa 7:9]

Can God make a rock so heavy that He cannot lift it?  Barrett poses the question this way:

For example, God cannot be corrupted, nor can he lie, let alone turn the truth into a falsehood.  This would mean he must not be omnipotent after all.

Anselm would offer:

“Or is the ability to do these things not power but impotence?  For he who can do these things can do what is not good for himself and what he ought not do.”

I have considered the question this way: is the world governed by natural laws?  If so, is God limited by these?  My answer to the first question is yes, and to the second – it is a dumb question.  God made the world in such a way that His governance was built into the system.  Why would He then violate His system?

Returning to Anslem, he would reconcile mercy and justice.  He would answer the question, where can I find happiness?  In someone than whom none greater can be conceived.  In him, joy is complete.


Anselm would get caught in the struggle between king and pope, when, as Archbishop of Canterbury – a position he preferred to avoid – he was serving a king that did not accept the authority of the current pope.  He was torn – between his desire to care for his sheep and his recognition that he could not pledge allegiance to such a king.  This would ultimately lead Anselm to leave for Italy.

It was on this journey where he would complete his work Why God Became Man – Cur Deus Homo.  It was written with an eye toward converting Jews to Christianity, however it speaks to all who ask this question.

Jesus had to be divine to save.  Man, destined to immortality, could only achieve this condition through redemption by a God-man – one immortal.  The Incarnation was, therefore, necessary. 


  1. I have thought about it this way. Jesus had to be the God-man to pay for everyone's sins. He had to be man so that He could pay for man's sins. A substitutionary sacrifice of like for like. But Jesus had to be God to have His death pay for everyone's sin through all time because God is infinite. An infinite human sacrifice.