The Minimum Reading List, Post 1: Anselm Of Canterbury

Adam DeVille, one of our bloggers here at Red River Orthodoxy, maintains a most esteemed site devoted to books on Eastern Christianities called  His site is a huge resource that should be thoroughly reviewed by anyone who is interested in Eastern Christianity and especially anyone who desires to write popular level writings, whether in print, online, or both.

I raise this point for two reasons:  1) books we are about to discuss here on RRO may sometimes be found there, though some books are not and at times, this reading list will cite articles rather than books but regardless, we recommend reading Adam’s blog in addition to this one and 2) we are not seeking to replace, in any way, shape or form, what he is doing there.  He’s done all of us a great service and continues to do so.

What I wish to begin now, however, is looking at that book list that I think we Orthodox should read.  Indeed, if I were at a seminary (and no, don’t worry, I don’t ever foresee one of our seminaries desiring to hire me–let your beating hears be still!), I would do what I could to make these books required reading.  Why?  Because I think we Orthodox need more informed perspectives on both our own theologies as well as the theologies of those around us.  This is true whether we are “cradle” or “convert.”  This is true whether we are Orthodox or Eastern Catholic.  This is true, because some of the stuff we author is, well, not as nuanced and informed as it could be.  I also think lacking subtlety and information fosters the anti-Western aspect of “Orthodoxy.”

So, here in post one of this reading list, I thought I would take head on, one of the boogeymen that so scares, intimidates, frustrates, perplexes, and/or angers many an Orthodox–Anselm of Canterbury.  If you are Orthodox, you might better know him as Anselm-who-proferred-a-heretical-tyranical-soteriology (view of salvation).  Or perhaps he’s better known as Anselm-whom-we-love-to-hate.  Perhaps you just reduce it to “heretic.”  However, you look at him, Orthodox have been using him as a foil by which to describe their own Orthodoxy, especially since the twentieth century.

So, what are some things that Orthodox have claimed about Anselm?  Well, Fr. Symeon Rodger could hardly hold himself back in a 1989 GOTR article, wherein he claimed to find numerous problems.  One was an alleged Nestorianism within Anselm’s Christology, as expressed in Cur Deus Homo.  On this score, one is better off reading my article on Anselm, published in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quaterly back in 2008.  I’ve included the file here: AnselmArticleSVS. For some odd reason, an editor mistyped my name as “Oliver J. Herbel,” but it’s I who wrote the piece.  What I argued was we need to take a look at De Incarnatione Verbi, an earlier work.  If one does that, and then sees how that lies behind Why the God-Man (Cur Deus Homo) one realizes Anselm was not some 11th century Neo-Nestorian.

Another charge Fr. Symeon Rodger brought against Anselm, however, was that of a juridical soteriology that is out of place within Christianity.  This seems to be the charge Orthodox are most likely to level at the venerable monk-bishop.  Frederica Matthewes-Green has hit on Anselm at least twice: here and here.  According to her, sin was viewed in one way until Anselm came along and said sin was a debt that had to be paid and only Jesus could pay the bill and she noted this was in opposition to a view that saw God the Father as lovingly not letting us go such that “Orthodox have a completely different understanding of Christ’s Saving work.”  God is this giant dishonored man who must be satisfied–even to the point that “there is no Devil.”  At least, that’s the picture of Anselm’s theology she leaves us.  An even simpler overview is given by Timothy Copple in his advice to converts and those looking into Orthodoxy.  Orthodox Wiki has an article dedicated to showing how different the East and West are in which Anselm is mentioned as a seminal figure in the development of atonement and substitutionary theory (away from earlier Patristic models):  Additionally, one might see the post and discussion on Justice over at Glory to God for All Things.  There, Anselm is presented as speaking of an “infinite” offense against God and comments complain about the aspect of God being “owed.”  Moreover, Eric Jobe even pointed out that a guest author here on RRO (David O’Neal) had reservations about atonement.

I would strongly recommend a couple readings and from Adam’s site we can learn a bit more as well.  For starters, I’d recommend an article by David Bentley Hart: A Debt Exceeding Every Debt.  If you read my article, you’ll notice this is where I had pointed the reader on this question.  Hart’s article points out some problems with the Anselmian caricature, even noting Vladimir Lossky’s guilt in this anti-Anselmian slug-fest that we Eastern Christians like to engage in.  Indeed, one of Hart’s strengths is taking on the notion that Anselm is all about punitive penance.

In addition to these two articles (by myself and Hart), a most important book, one that can truly help when assessing Anselm’s “juridical” soteriology is Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape by R.W. Southern.  All Orthodox (especially) and even Eastern Catholics would do themselves well to read this.  They would become much more informed about who Anselm was, what his contexts were, and what his arguments were.  Anselm was a complex thinker responding to real issues of his day and Southern gets at that well.  To note just a few things that might help us all be more informed and therefore avoid the temptation to repeat ignorant claims, Southern covers the relationship between freedom and obedience in Anselm quite well on pages 167-74.  He also noted, when discussing Why the God-Man, that “freedom of choice between Good and Evil is servitude in Anselm’s system; inability to sin is perfect freedom, to be sought in this life but attained only in Heaven” (219).  Eastern Orthodox should appreciate this.  Sounds just a little like St. Maximus the Confessor, no?  The mere fact of ping-ponging between Good and Evil is, itself, a result of the fall.

His discussion of “honor” is likewise important.  “Something more than ‘honour’ in this general sense is required if Anselm’s language is to be intelligible.  . . . This background, which sets Anselm as far apart from Patristic as from modern, or even later medieval thought, is the complex of feudal relationships.  In the language of feudal tenure a man’s honour was his estate” (225, emphasis in the original).  In other words, God’s honor is the universe correctly ordered around him and worshiping him and living in harmony with him.  So, when the fall occurs, humanity acts in rebellion and God must assert his honor, not in response to some sort of injury, but in order to re-establish the harmony, order and beauty (yes, beauty is an important term for Anselm) of the created cosmos.  “And so the whole sevitium debitum of the universe is re-established, and God’s ‘honour’ in its full extent is displayed in the restored order and beauty of the whole” (226).  Ironically, those who see Anselm’s God as some giant tyrant demanding a payment have failed to recognize the feudal imagery or analogy at play.  Now, it is true that Anselm did not believe that the Devil could claim any justice against God but this is because Anselm saw that as a diminution of God’s divine majesty.  The harmony is disrupted by the fall.  The fall does not mean the Devil has a claim (on us) against God.  Likewise, the beauty of the universe is the reason God could not simply just say “yeah, sure, I forgive you, no harm done.”  The beauty had to be restored.  Humanity had to be brought back into a position of free submission toward God.  Here feudalism helped Anselm once again.  For by likening redemption to the act of a king who accepts the service of one on behalf of the others (who are guilty), he expresses the Christian faith in a manner that fit his context.  For all who would present themselves to the king and accept what the one innocent man did would be brought back into a right relationship with the king.  In fact, during a time in which intense penances and alms were seen by many as the only means of justifying oneself before God, Anselm actually articulated a way of looking at salvation that was less penance focused.

Anselm does present a unique take on things, by using the feudal imagery of his time.  That much, Orthodox Christians seem to have gotten right, but the subsequent conclusion, that feudalism itself was the driving force, rather than a means of connecting with his context, and that Anselm is to be blamed for a view of God as an angry tyrant needing payment or that Anselm created a view of salvation “completely different” from Eastern Christian or earlier Christian views goes too far–way too far, actually.  What Anselm is most concerned with is responding to those (primarily Jews, actually) who asked why the incarnation was necessary and in answering that, Anselm fixated not on tyranny but beauty and utilized feudalism as an analogy to show how this is so.  All analogies break down, of course, but if we’re intellectually honest, we would conclude that the “honor” system Anselm presented was one that looked less like the Klingons of Star Trek and more like the kind of harmony and beauty an artist intends on a canvas or, to stick with that feudal system, the kind of harmony and beauty that will exist after the Second Coming when all will be rightly worshiping God as our Loving Creator.

In closing, I would like to point us, as well, to two books Adam mentions on his site.  Once one has read the two articles and books mentioned (Southern’s and the two by Ward on Adam’s site), then I think the Orthodox reader should move on to read Anselm.  Truly, there is much to appreciate there–monasticism, church-state relations, Christian apologetics, the combination of beauty, prayer, and reason.  All of these themes, if properly understood, would actually reveal to us an Anselm with whom we have more in common than we might have dared thought, but getting there will require a willingness to see Orthodoxy and Orthodox soteriology as something that can be defined without a “necessary” anti-Anselmian polemic attached thereto.

13 Responses

  1. Mome

    Whole passages from Anselm were included almost verbatim in sections of Nicolas Cabasilas’ works, if I’m not mistaken. Anslem does get an unfair bad rap among Orthodox, and it’s good to see more people helping to clarify what he meant. What you’ve described is beautiful. Still, I think it’s not totally amiss to locate in Anselm something of a milestone along the way to a particular understanding of atonement that skews from a more Orthodox understanding. That’s not to vilify Anselm, not at all to say it’s his fault, but only to say that his ideas may have been taken in a certain direction by some (not all) who came after him. By this I mean that it’s not only 20th century Orthodox who have misunderstood him, but also some in the West.

    1. No some Orthodox are not the only ones ever to misunderstand him but then the problem isn’t Anselm but those who misunderstood him. In this case, as in all, I don’t mean to imply that only Orthodox have screwed up but I am saying that we bear responsibility for what we have screwed up and that we would do well not to play the part of a fool who acts triumphant based on ignorance.

      1. Mome

        Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should excuse our own bad understandings or that we shouldn’t try to correct them. I’m saying, however, that as we trace how certain ideas emerge over the course of centuries, we can sometimes see that a given thinker becomes, through no fault of his or her own, a point along a line of development toward an idea quite different from what that thinker may have originally had in mind. That thinker might be horrified to find himself or herself associated with this latter idea, and it is fair to try to show how that thinker did not mean for his or her ideas to be taken in this way, but it is also in the interest of honesty to understand that his or her ideas were in fact taken in this way by people who came after him or her. Once any thinker is taken up into a larger discourse, he or she will have set in motion lines of thinking that are out of his or her control and are likely to go in unintended directions. In the case of Anselm, then, we do need to be fair to him and understand what he in fact really tried to say, but we also need not ignore that he, through absolutely no fault of his own, may be connected with the development of an idea that he wouldn’t agree with. His thought may have been mishandled or hijacked somewhere along the way, and it is very good to make that clear, but it is not altogether incorrect to bring up his name as one of the key stops along the way that took some Christians from Point A to Point B.

        1. We’re not too far apart here and I was tracking with you til right near the end of your comment. If someone has misused and/or misunderstood Anslm then it’s still wrong to place him in the trajectory of that misunderstanding because the person at fault is not Anselm but the one who misunderstood him. Let’s say he was misunderstood by by person X. The most accurate description then is not to say Anselm taught Y which later led to the teaching of Person X. Rather the most accurate description would be Anselm taught Y but person X misunderstood what Y was really all about and started teaching Z. In that case then we should concern ourselves with Z. Orthodox attack Anselm because it’s easier than actually studying him and enables one to continue a polemic that cannot easily be challenged because our culture is just as theologically and historically uninformed.

          1. Mome

            I think in Anselm’s case, it seems that there are more than a few “person Xs” (who have had nothing to do with Orthodoxy and who had nothing against Anselm) who over time must not have understood what Anselm’s teaching Y was all about and went on to represent him in the kinds of ways that are oft-repeated nowadays. This suggests that teaching Y might have lent itself to misunderstanding, even if only because it was expressed in concepts so specific to Anselm’s own particular context that without a familiarity with that context (such as provided by Southern’s book), even an intelligent and reasonably diligent and friendly reader would be susceptible to getting Y wrong. It is in this way that I think Anselm can be placed on the trajectory of the misunderstanding, not so as to attack him or blame him or perpetuate misunderstandings, but simply to acknowledge that not every person X who has misunderstood him was just an utter dunce.

            But I’m probably belaboring things for no good reason. I’m happy to see Anselm, or anyone, distanced from the kinds of teachings that have been attributed to him.

  2. Patrick Henry Reardon

    Mome wrote, “Whole passages from Anselm were included almost verbatim in sections of Nicolas Cabasilas’ works, if I’m not mistaken.”

    Mome is not mistaken. My close comparison of the two writers in their original languages confirmed an impression that Cabasilas, if he did not know Latin, at least had access to a Greek translation of Anselm.

    I hope to explore this point somewhat in a book on the Atonement I am currently writing for Ancient Faith Press.

    1. As I’m sure you know there are others who have looked at Cabasilas and his soteriogy and the question of his indebtedness to Anselm. It’ll be interesting to see what your work adds to the discussion. Sounds like a fun project.

  3. Andrew

    Father Oliver,

    For me, this piece is astoundingly timely. I’m currently working on an article tracing the influence of Paul Evdokimov’s writings on Anselm (especially apophaticism in the proslogion) on the Catholic “Nouvelle Theologie” movement, including post-Vatican II thinkers like H.U. Von Balthasar and Thomas Merton OCSO. It turns out that Anselm’s ontological argument was in fact one of the major fulcrums for Catholic theology and spirituality in the conciliar era, and Evdokimov and the Saint-Serge faculty played a much greater role than previously thought.


  4. Andrew

    Also, sorry to double-comment, but your brief comment about seminaries makes me curious about the state of education at our seminaries if there is such a dearth of experts on Western Christianity. Catholic and Protestant seminaries have experts on Eastern Christianity. At the VERY least, even for the very radical anti-Western Orthodox, there should be a desire to know exactly what it is you’re against (as opposed to just hating a cartoon version).

    I for one would be thrilled to hear that St. Vlad’s or any of the rest were opening a job search for a faculty position in “The Catholic Intellectual Tradition” or “The Reformation” or “American Christianity” or something like that. For one thing, it would help if new priests actually knew their audience and their interlocutors. For another, it would help in the slow removal of the “horse blinders” that hide from Orthodox eyes Augustine, Ambrose, Anselm, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Scotus, and others.

      1. Marcie

        Where are the wealthy Orthodox who could endow chairs in these specialties? This is a question I’ve asked myself about many areas in which Orthodox could establish a stronger presence in American education (from elementary to post-graduate), medical institutions, and many areas. It seems that in general, the Orthodox community is content to let other churches make these investments and then we just use them. (And I’m thinking especially at the moment about those Orthodox individuals with substantial financial means–but maybe I should include the rest of us of ordinary means who don’t bother to pool our resources towards such institutional ends.) In the case of seminary education, this is really unfortunate. Letting “thinkers” like Frederica Matthewes-Green have an influence so out of proportion to their expertise is one self-defeating default result.

        And to be even a bit more grumpy, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve so very often lamented my own priest’s lack of interest in learning about American religious history, or just history. I know it’s probably wrong to expect all clergy to be more scholarly, but still. It seems that being able to engage knowledgeably with the culture you minister in, especially where understanding the nuances of its religious history is so critical, is not too much to ask from more clergy than we now have who are competent in this. What I see coming from my priest (cradle, FWIW) is (not always, but too often) repetition of a lot of the simplistic ideas and maxims and sub-par representations of other churches’ teachings, leading to creation of more such shallow Orthodox convert culture in our parish. And so it goes.

        1. Your diagnosis is not off the mark and your question about endowed. Hairs is spot on. I have long believed that’s precisely what needs to be done. Look at the chairs in Catholic. Studies and Jewish studies. They weren’t funded by Zoroastrians.

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