*This is not a definitive answer on the topic but I hope it is useful food for thought.

Document Study: Anselm, Cur Deus Homo

The full question:

Document Study: Anselm, Cur Deus Homo


Cur Deus Homo is a privilege to have preserved within history. The author, Anselm (1033-1109), was a man who desired God to be at the forefront of his life. Many intellectual influences had its impact on the formulation of Cur Deus Homo including scholasticism, Jewish opponents and Greek Patristic theology. Despite the predominant ransom explanation of the Incarnation, Anselm’s description was stalwartly against such an idea. Rather a satisfaction theory was proposed. With a correct comprehension of Anselm’s language and culture Cur Deus Homo can be understood in a more accurate light that is not influenced by modern day outlook. While the reception was initially poor in some sectors other segments received it with joy and it continued to influence theological thought throughout the centuries. This document may be ancient yet it still has much to teach and is worthy of much reflection.


Anselm (1033-1109), Archbishop of Canterbury, was ‘one of the most important influences’ in his ‘creative period of European history’.[1] This man’s ‘most celebrated text’, alongside the Prosolgion[2], is Cur Deus Homo, ‘Why the God-man’[3]. John Mozley claims that ‘if any one Christian work outside the canon of the New Testament, may be described as ‘epoch-making,’ it is the Cur Deus Homo of Anselm’[4]. The purpose of this paper is a brief analysis of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo. To accomplish this task the essay will consider the author’s life; intellectual influences; another explanation of the atonement in Anselm’s day; the explanation of Cur Deus Homo; reception of this document; the relevance for its time to the present day. With this structure in mind let us begin to study the epoch-making document, Cur Deus Homo.

The Author

The Benedictine monk, Anselm, was born in Aosta in a family of high lineage but declining fortunes.[5] His mother died at approximately the age of seventeen and due to mutual dislike with his father he left home.[6] Afterwards he discovered an exceptional mentor in Lanfranc at Bec. Eventually he became prior of the Abbey of Bec (1078) until the appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury (1093).[7] Although ‘his enduring fame rests on his intellectual activities in theology’, there were many other contributions he made to society such as fighting ‘against the practice of lay investiture, which was practiced by the English kings’.[8] It is noteworthy that one defining point of Anselm ‘from his arrival at Bec in 1059 to his death in 1109’ is that ‘his search for God is at the centre of everything in his life’[9]. Much more could be said on the life of Anselm yet the most significant understanding is the culminating effect of each event that led this man to accomplish so much in his lifetime and for it to be preserved within the pages of history.

Intellectual Influences

There were numerous intellectual influences on Anselm himself and his decision to formulate Cur Deus Homo. Some of these influences was the outlook of scholasticism, theological debates originating from secular schools of his time and stimuluses from ‘Greek Patristic theology’[10]. His understanding of a reasoned Jewish perspective and indeed his own comprehension of God were prods that instigated this exceptional work.

Anselm is known as the father of scholasticism which could be defined ‘as the attempt to rationalize theology in order to buttress faith by reason’[11]. He desired to not be entirely separated from culture but practiced ‘synthesis’.[12] Much of this intellectual movement was due to the impact of the philosophy of Aristotle.[13] Anselm’s motto was ‘faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum)’[14] Yet, this philosophical father of scholasticism was sure to make scripture primary ‘and his theology is systematically Biblically based, he applied reason to its interpretation and looked to the Church’s teaching as corroboration’[15]. While Aristotle and much of this philosophy was ‘a component of Anselm’s weltbild (world-view)’ and had some similarities to this monk, yet a major difference is that the philosophy of Aristotle ‘could not affirm the kind of theological-aesthetic unity Anselm propounded’.[16]

The Jewish opponents were known to Anselm through his friend Gilbert Crispin.[17] They would have been strongly opposed ‘to the possibility of divine Incarnation, and could support their position by learned arguments’[18]. It may be that Anselm’s own reference to ‘unbelievers who deride our simplicity object that we injure and insult God’ refers to these Jewish opponents. Particularly with the concept of the Incarnation where God descended and was subject to human experiences of childhood, suffering and not the least of all ‘crucifixion and death between thieves’.[19] Yet these questions are not only considerations of the Jew but also Anselm himself ‘who is outstanding among theologians for the emphasis he lays on God’s honour’[20]. He found it necessary to provide an explanation for this vital question that he felt required ‘a more searching and satisfying explanation…than any so far put forward’[21].

As for Greek Patristic theology there appears to be considerable evidence of intellectual influence when considering Christology. These influences can be linked to ‘the works of Athanasius, Irenaeus, Pseudo-Dionysius and Gregory Nazianzen’[22]. With this in mind a balance between Anselm’s ‘originality’ and dependence on what has come before must be kept in perspective. The influence of debates formulated by prominent secular schools will be seen as we now turn to another explanation of the atonement in Anselm’s day.

Another Explanation of the Atonement

Before considering Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo it is important to grasp the reigning atonement theory of the time.[23] It is known as the ‘ransom theory’ as opposed to Anselm’s ‘satisfaction theory’.[24] This is a ‘contemporary academic debate’ which ‘crops up in the records of the work of schools in northern France at this date’[25]. One document in particular also entitled Cur Deus Homo was attributed to Ralph from a school attached to the cathedral of Laon which argues for a ransom theory. Boso[26] quotes from this document and dismisses the argument at the beginning of Cur Deus Homo.[27] Some of the appeal of this purported truth was its conformity ‘to recognizable norms of justice in human society’, it held the concept of dualism which could be easily relatable to in the experiences of life and it provided the concept of a ‘heroic sacrifice’ which appealed to the ‘ideals of the heroic age’[28]. Although Anselm had ‘no quarrel with the feudal imagery’ as we will find out later, he could not ‘accept that the Devil can have any rights in the matter’[29]. Both in Cur Deus Homo and the Meditatio Redempionis Humanae[30] Anselm makes clear that the right payment is ‘due to God alone’[31] because humanity ‘sinned against God and not the devil’[32]. Let us now turn more specifically to the document in consideration.

The Explanation of Cur Deus Homo

For a clear explanation of Cur Deus Homo we will consider Anselm’s own introduction to his work, a brief outline of his dissertation and several key concepts that flow throughout.

Anselm’s Introduction

The reason Anselm provides for writing Cur Deus Homo was due to ‘great turmoil’ that ‘God knows’ and he began in ‘response to a request’ while he was in England.[33] It was not until his exile in Capua that he finished this work but its completion was rushed possibly due to his description of ‘people who made copies for themselves…before it was completed and fully thought through’[34]. So to prevent error and misunderstandings he ‘hastily’ completed it. The audience Anselm intends appears to be Christians.[35] While he does mention unbelievers, it appears to be for those who seek to give an answer to unbelievers. This seems clear from his desire for Pope Urban II to scrutinise the work and his explanation of those who have heard his answer ‘so that they can delight in the understanding and contemplation of things they already believe.’[36] It is likely he predominantly refers to his fellow monks as he does in the Monologion[37] and the Prosologion[38], although not as clearly. It is reasonable therefore to assume Cur Deus Homo ‘is thoroughly rooted in Christian presuppositions’[39]. Anselm notes the purpose of the ‘two short books’ in Cur Deus Homo as firstly presenting ‘objections of unbelievers’ providing reasons for the conclusion that ‘it is impossible for any human being to be saved apart from Christ’.[40] Secondly, that ‘the whole human being’ was created to ‘enjoy blessed immortality’ and that this could only come about ‘through the agency of a God-man’.[41]

A Brief Outline

To provide a familiarity of Anselm’s argument in brief here is a summary of Cur Deus Homo that Southern has helpfully formulated[42]:

  1. The problem
    1. Man was created by God for eternal blessedness.
    2. This blessedness requires the perfect and voluntary submission of Man’s will to God. (Freedom is to love the limitations appropriate to one’s being.)
    3. But the whole human race has refused to make this submission (and has thus lost its freedom).
    4. No member of the human race can restore the lost blessedness, because even perfect obedience cannot now make up for lack of obedience in the past.
    5. Therefore the created universe is deprived of its due harmony, and in the absence of external aid, the whole human race has irretrievably forfeited the blessedness for which it was created.
  2. The necessity of a solution
    1. God’s purpose in the creation of Man and the universe has been frustrated.
    2. But it is impossible that the purpose of an omnipotent Being should be frustrated.
    3. Therefore a means of redemption must exist.
  3. The solution
    1. To restore the lost harmony and blessedness, an offering of obedience must be made, equal to or greater than all that has been lacking in the past.
    2. Only Man, as the offender, ought to make this offering; but no man can do this, because he already owes to God all and more than all he has to offer.
    3. Only God can make an offering which transcends the whole unpaid debt of past offences; but God ought not to make it, because the debt is Man’s.
    4. Since only Man ought to, and only God can, make this offering, it must be made by one who is both Man and God.

Key Concepts Within Cur Deus Homo

Several key concepts in Cur Deus Homo are worthy of note and must be briefly considered to fully understand this document. The first of which is the feudal system that was prevalent in Anselm’s day and often used within Cur Deus Homo. This imagery has been questioned and heavily criticized by various scholars.[43] Southern recognizes this imagery does not ‘commend his thought to modern readers’[44], yet Hogg helpfully relegates the metaphor to its rightful position. Not as the basis for his conclusions but as ‘a reflection of an idea already formed’[45]. Which makes sense according to Anselm who calls it an ‘analogy’[46]. We must beware of confusing ‘the cultural relevance of an idea with its origin and basis’[47].

Along with the concept of feudalism is the idea of God’s honour. This is ‘simply another word for the ordering of the universe in its due relationship to God’[48]. This idea of honour ‘is inseparable from his goodness, which imparts life and harmony’[49]. The concept of harmony prevents God from forgiving out of mercy alone.[50] For it is the concept of beauty which must be upheld otherwise it ‘would degrade God the Creator, Man the creature, and the whole Creation’[51] Satisfaction is required to restore God’s honour and this satisfaction can only be provided by the God-man[52]. Which all assists in understanding the concept of ‘fittingness’. Anselm argues that ‘it is unfitting that God’s original intention be unfulfilled and therefore it necessarily will be’[53].

Finally another theme that will be considered briefly is Anselm’s discussion on the subject of angels. Hogg believes the context for the question of the angels arises from ‘the writings of Augustine. In his City of God 22.1’[54]. Whilst this may be the case it is true that Anselm has already shown an interest when considering the fall of Satan in De Casu Diaboli.[55] The question of whether the number of elect men would equal the number of fallen angels or would be greater is discussed ‘at the cathedral school of Laon, as perhaps Anselm knew’[56]. Anselm’s view is that ‘even if no angel had been lost, human beings would still have their own place in the heavenly city’[57]. These are several key concepts within Cur Deus Homo that a correct understanding of allows for a greater comprehension of this document.


The immediate response to Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo could be seen as negative. Southern points out that the only acceptance was really from Peter Abelard yet ‘his followers drew from this refutation a conclusion which was the opposite of that which Anselm intended’[58]. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s dismissal of dualism[59] caused a plethora of questions to arise from quarters like Abelard such as ‘why resort to the cruelty of subjecting his Son to a pitiless death?’[60]. Evans believes the university system rejected much of Anselm and Cur Deus Homo did not come ‘back into favour’ until the ‘beginning of the thirteenth century’[61]. Yet there is evidence provided by Dunthorne of a ‘more widespread and diverse impact than has previously been established’[62]. Welch sees the fresh recognition of God’s holiness as ‘giving hundreds of men in Benedictine monasteries’ a desire to serve God all the more.[63]. Gasper notes its impact as supplanting ‘Augustine’s De trinitate as the most consulted guide for issues raised by the Incarnation’[64]. Its impact continued to reach ‘the subsequent doctrine of the Reformers’[65]. Other critiques of limitation to its culture[66], no ‘sustained treatment’ of the life of Christ[67], an objection to the concept of ‘debt’[68], a failure to present a complete view of the atonement[69] and no mention ‘that Christ is “punished” on our behalf’[70] are a few of the limitations in a full reception of this article. The immediate reception was mixed yet its well-reasoned logic caused such an article to constantly be considered even now for ‘anyone studying Christian theology’[71].


A few points to consider for the relevance of today are the helpfulness of implementing the concepts and the language of the time. It was this factor that increased the influence and reception of Cur Deus Homo.[72] Another consideration is the example of Anselm in using reason to influence an intelligent response that can ‘have a cumulative value’ in convincing someone of the truth, by God’s grace.[73] Finally it is a great necessity to hold to the truth of the incarnation and the atonement as expressed to some extent within Cur Deus Homo.


Anselm is exceptional in his example of ‘holiness and deep spirituality’ along with being ‘one of the best minds of the Western world’[74]. It was this document that rejected a dualistic mindset and provided a rational foundation for such a vital concept in Christianity. Perhaps the correct reaction to Cur Deus Homo is the same as Eadmer says about its culmination[75] that it ‘found favour and gave joy to many’[76].

  1. R. W. Southern, Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), 10.

  2. ‘Ontological’ argument.

  3. Giles E. M. Gasper, Anselm of Canterbury and His Theological Inheritance (England; Burlington: Ashgate Pub, 2004), 152.

  4. John Kenneth Mozley, The Doctrine of the Atonement (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1916), http://archive.org/details/doctrineofatonem00mozl, (accessed May 2, 2017), 125.

  5. Southern, Saint Anselm.

  6. Eadmer, Nelson’s Medieval Texts: The Life of St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, by Eadmer (ed. Southern; London: Nelson, 1962). It is due to Eadmer, a companion and biographer of Anselm, that much of Anselm’s life is recorded in history.

  7. Southern, Saint Anselm.

  8. Earle Edwin Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church (3rd ed.; Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub, 1996), 229.

  9. Southern, Saint Anselm, xvi.

  10. Gasper, Anselm of Canterbury, 154.

  11. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, 227.

  12. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, 227.

  13. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, 228.

  14. C. Douglas Weaver, Rady Roldán-Figueroa, and Brandon Frick (eds.), Exploring Christian Heritage: A Reader in History and Theology (Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press, 2012), 51.

  15. G. R. Evans, Anselm (Outstanding Christian Thinkers; London: Continuum, 2002), 108.

  16. David S. Hogg, Anselm of Canterbury The Beauty of Theology (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2004), 163.

  17. Southern, Saint Anselm, 198.

  18. Southern, Saint Anselm, 198.

  19. Anselm, Anselm: Basic Writings (ed. Thomas Williams; trans. by Thomas Williams; Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2007), 248.

  20. Southern, Saint Anselm, 199.

  21. Southern, Saint Anselm, 200.

  22. Gasper, Anselm of Canterbury, 154. Cohen briefly argues the strong connection between Anselm and, in particular, Athanasius following on from Gasper, Anselm of Canterbury; Bentley Hart, ‘A Gift Exceeding Every Debt: An Eastern Orthodox Appreciation of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo’, Pro Ecclesia 7/3 (January 1998), 333–349; Kevin A. McMahon, ‘The Cross and the Pearl: Anselm’s Patristic Doctrine of the Atonement’, in Saint Anselm – His Origins and Influence (ed. John R. Fortin; Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001). This is an important development in a thorough understanding of Anselm and his work in Cur Deus Homo.

  23. Hogg, Anselm of Canterbury The Beauty of Theology.

  24. Weaver, Roldán-Figueroa, and Frick, Exploring Christian Heritage, 51.

  25. Evans, Anselm, 74. It also seems to be ‘generally believed and taught’ in the Church see Adam Cleghorn Welch, Anselm and His Work (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1901), http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=h8h&bquery=(HJ+5LTB)&type=1&site=ehost-live, (accessed May 2, 2017), 173.

  26. Boso was a pupil of Anselm’s with a great aptitude for philosophy. He helped Anselm write Cur Deus Homo and attempted to take on the role of the ‘unbeliever’ as an interlocutor, which provides the dialectic method of Cur Deus Homo. Southern, Saint Anselm; Evans, Anselm.

  27. Southern, Saint Anselm, 204.

  28. Southern, Saint Anselm, 208.

  29. Evans, Anselm, 74.

  30. This is a vital document that Gasper in Anselm of Canterbury believes is necessary to read alongside Cur Deus Homo to fully comprehend the document. Hogg in Anselm of Canterbury The Beauty of Theology considers it to be a meditation that summarises Cur Deus Homo and was written a few years after Cur Deus Homo was completed.

  31. Gasper, Anselm of Canterbury, 166.

  32. Anselm, Complete Philosophical and Theological Treatises of Anselm of Canterbury (trans. by Jasper Hopkins and Herbert Warren Richardson; Minneapolis: A.J. Banning Press, 2000), 421.

  33. Anselm, Anselm: Basic Writings, 238.

  34. Anselm, Anselm: Basic Writings, 238.

  35. Hogg, Anselm of Canterbury The Beauty of Theology.

  36. Anselm, Anselm: Basic Writings, 245.

  37. Anselm, Anselm: Basic Writings, 1.

  38. Anselm, Anselm: Basic Writings, 75.

  39. Hogg, Anselm of Canterbury The Beauty of Theology, 159.

  40. Anselm, Anselm: Basic Writings, 238.

  41. Anselm, Anselm: Basic Writings, 238–239. In Anselm’s explanation of these two short books he explains that everything happens just as ‘everything we believe about Christ should take place’ Anselm, Anselm: Basic Writings, 239. Yet before that phrase he includes an interesting phrase remoto Christo ‘leaving Christ out of the picture’. This phrase seems odd at first yet Hogg in Anselm of Canterbury The Beauty of Theology explains this is ‘a type of argumentation we might call the impossibility of the contrary’ (p. 159). Deme in The Christology of Anselm of Canterbury (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003) also notes ‘it is an effort to prove by necessary reasons (rationes necessariae) that the accomplishment of the work of redemption was inevitable’ (p. 9).

  42. Southern, Saint Anselm, 206. Whilst I found this summary brief it was extremely helpful in keeping the big picture together as I read through Cur Deus Homo. What lacks within this brief outline is as Southern himself notes that it gives ‘no idea of the subtlety and power of Anselm’s argument’ in Saint Anselm, 206. Along with this, the outline fails to use much of the important vocabulary that Anselm continuously refers to in his essay (ie. satisfaction, fittingness). Apart from these two points it is the most concise and full outline of Anselm’s logical flow of thought that I have come across.

  43. Jasper Hopkins, A Companion to the Study of St. Anselm (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972) criticises the feudal imagery within Cur Deus Homo very negatively.

  44. Southern, Saint Anselm, 221.

  45. Hogg, Anselm of Canterbury The Beauty of Theology, 164.

  46. Anselm, Anselm: Basic Writings, 310.

  47. Thomas A. Noble, ‘The ’Necessity” of Anselm: The Argument of the Cur Deus Homo’, Wesleyan Theological Journal 50/1 (January 2015): 62.

  48. Southern, Saint Anselm, 226.

  49. Hart, “A Gift Exceeding Every Debt,” 346.

  50. Anselm, Anselm: Basic Writings, 262–264.

  51. Southern, Saint Anselm, 212. Southern points out that this theological concept of beauty is a new word in Anselm’s theological dictionary first used within Cur Deus Homo.

  52. ‘one person in two natures, fully divine and fully human. This “two-natures” doctrine of Christ is commonly called “Chalcedonian Christology” because it was given its classic formulation by the Council of Chalcedon in 451’. Sandra Visser and Thomas Williams, Anselm (Great Medieval Thinkers; Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 213.

  53. Noble, “The ’Necessity” of Anselm,” 60. Hogg in Anselm of Canterbury The Beauty of Theology asserts that Anselm uses three sets of words to convey this concept of fitting. Altogether this concept of fitting is used approximately seventy-six times.

  54. Hogg, Anselm of Canterbury The Beauty of Theology, 170.

  55. Anselm, Anselm: Basic Writings, 167–212. ‘Here he postulates that God intended to make up from human nature the due and ordained number of inhabitants of the heavenly city, so that his original plan for it should not be frustrated.’ Evans, Anselm, 77.

  56. Evans, Anselm, 77.

  57. Anselm, Anselm: Basic Writings, 270.

  58. Southern, Saint Anselm, 210.

  59. Deme, The Christology of Anselm, 222.

  60. Southern, Saint Anselm, 209.

  61. Evans, Anselm, 130.

  62. Judith Rachel Dunthorne, ‘Anselm of Canterbury and the Development of Theological Thought C. 1070-1141’, (Durham University, 2012), http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/6360/1/Anselm_of_Canterbury_and_the_Development_of_Theological_Thought%2C_c._1070-1141.pdf?DDD17+, (2012), 201.

  63. Welch, Anselm and His Work, 183.

  64. Gasper, Anselm of Canterbury, 152.

  65. Noble, “The ’Necessity” of Anselm,” 53.

  66. This challenge has briefly been considered above with the concept of feudalism.

  67. Hogg, Anselm of Canterbury The Beauty of Theology, 180. This seems a reasonable assertion and such a concept may improve Cur Deus Homo had Anselm considered it more fully.

  68. Noble, “The ’Necessity” of Anselm,” 62. This problem with debt Noble points out is easily solved when it is considered as ‘something I ought to do, an obligation I ought to fulfil’ which removes the problem some may have of a ‘commercial’ concept.

  69. Dan Saunders, ‘A Theological Assessment of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo’, Churchman 123/2 (2009), 121–142. Saunders makes some excellent points on the failure of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo yet at times he seems overly harsh and not understanding to the purpose and timing of the document. Yet his criticisms are well founded and require serious contemplation before welcoming Cur Deus Homo with open arms. As mentioned above all human documents have their failings yet it is important to recognize the beneficial contributions Anselm has most certainly offered.

  70. Noble, “The ’Necessity” of Anselm,” 64.

  71. Sidney Norton Deane, trans. by, The Works of Saint Anselm (n.p.: Digireads.com Publishing, 2012), Back Cover.

  72. Welch, Anselm and His Work, 182.

  73. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries.

  74. Evans, Anselm, 108.

  75. As mentioned above Hogg in Anselm of Canterbury The Beauty of Theology believes the later work ‘Meditation on Human Redemption’ to be this document and this makes sense when reading this meditation.

  76. Eadmer, The Life of St. Anselm by Eadmer, 122.




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