10 Things You Should Know about the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement
What is known as the satisfaction theory of the atonement is most closely associated with the name of St. Anselm. Here are ten things to know about how he conceived of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
(1) First, it may help to know a little about the man himself. Anselm was born in 1033 at Aosta in Piedmont (northern Italy) two years before William the Conqueror became Duke of Normandy. He died in 1109. He was a studious youth, amiable, and often displayed a profound tenderness for animals. In despair over his relationship with his father he left home at the age of 23 and traveled north to Bec in Normandy. After the death of his father (who finally converted), Anselm became a monk (1060).
In 1063 he succeeded Lanfranc as prior of the abbey and held the post until 1078, at which time he became abbot, where he served until 1093. He then, somewhat reluctantly, accepted the position of Archbishop of Canterbury and went to Britain. These were troubled years for Anselm, eight of which (1097-1100, 1103-1106) were spent in exile. In 1494 he was canonized by Alexander VI.
(2) Anselm begins by asking the question: What is sin? He defines sin as the withholding by the creature from God the honor that is due him. Therefore, sin is debt, or the failure to render to God full and proper obedience:
“One who does not render this honor [i.e., obedience in every act of will] to God takes away from God what belongs to Him, and dishonors God, and to do this is to sin” (Cur Deus Homo? Book I, ch. 11).
“So then, everyone who sins ought to pay back the honor of which he has robbed God; and this is the satisfaction which every sinner owes to God” (ibid.).
(3) Under what obligation does sin place mankind? According to Anselm, mankind is under a three-fold obligation: first, we must immediately render to God full and proper obedience in everything; second, we must pay back the honor due unto God of which, by our sin, we deprived him; and third, we must pay back more (reparation) than we have taken away; this is because of the infinite degree of the insult we inflicted on God by dishonoring him. Hence, total obedience, repayment, and reparation are required of all humanity.
(4) There are only two possible options left to mankind: either we must be punished or we must make the required satisfaction. Punishment is less than desirable for all concerned, for God’s plan to bring eternal happiness to his creation would suffer. Satisfaction is the only viable alternative.
(5) Mankind is unable to make the required satisfaction, and for two reasons. First, we already owe God complete obedience and thus have nothing to offer to make satisfaction that is not already rightfully his. Second, sin is infinitely heinous because God, against whom it was committed, is infinitely holy. Thus, whatever satisfaction we make would be eternal in duration, for our sin offended an eternally righteous God.
(6) Why cannot God, in love and mercy, simply dismiss the offense and forgive us our sins? There are two reasons. First, if sin is not punished, it is not subject to any law or regulation. The sinner and saint would thus have equal standing before God, the former being regarded no differently than the latter. Second, it would overturn justice if the creature could defraud the creator of that which is his due. The justice of God has no less a right for expression than do his love and mercy.
(7) How, then, can satisfaction be made? Anselm put it this way (with slight paraphrasing):
“Satisfaction cannot be made unless there be some One able to pay God for man’s sin something greater than all that is beside God. . . . Now nothing is greater than all that is beside God except God himself. None therefore can make this satisfaction except God. And none ought to make it except man. . . . If, then, it be necessary that the kingdom of heaven be completed by man’s admission, and if man cannot be admitted unless the aforesaid satisfaction for sin be first made, and if God only can, and man only ought to make this satisfaction, then necessarily One must make it who is both God and man” (Book II, ch. 6).
In other words, only we owe the debt, but we cannot pay it. Only God can pay the debt, but he does not owe it. Therefore, only a God-man, i.e., Jesus Christ, can both bear the guilt of human sin and pay the debt incurred by it. This is Cur Deus Homo . . . this is why God became man!
(8) How could the death of Christ honor God and sufficiently outweigh the sins of men? Anselm gives us three answers. First, since the God-man offered to God a gift he did not owe, the gift is adequate to pay for our sins. Second, the God-man did not deserve to die. His death was entirely voluntary. Thus his death, unlike that of all other men, was meritorious in God’s sight. Third, Anselm points out that the assault on Christ is the greatest sin imaginable (Book II, ch. 14). Therefore, since he willed to endure this greatest of all injustices, the merit of his death is itself the greatest imaginable and more than suffices to outweigh the sins of mankind.
(9) Some have argued that in Anselm’s model, God’s justice is given a prominence to the exclusion of divine love. But this objection overlooks the fact that the death of Christ is a voluntary, self-sacrificial giving for the sake of sinners. We should also remember that Anselm posits two ways in which sin may be punished, “and the fact that God chooses the one that spares man and tasks God, - the fact that he satisfies his own justice for the sinner, instead of leaving the sinner to satisfy it by an endless misery in his own person, - shows in the most conclusive and affecting manner that Redemption has man’s welfare in view, as well as the best interests of the universe, and the majestic glory of the divine nature” (William Shedd, History of Christian Doctrine, II:284).
Anselm himself says:
“the compassion of God, which appeared to be lost entirely when we were considering the justice of God and the sin of man, we have now found to be so great and so consistent with justice, that nothing greater or more just can be conceived of. For what compassion can equal the words of God the Father addressed to the sinner condemned to eternal punishment, and having no means of redeeming himself: ‘Take my only-begotten Son, and make him an offering for thyself;’ or the words of the Son: ‘Take me, and ransom thy soul?’ For this is what both say, when they invite and draw us to faith in the gospel” (Book II, ch. 20).
(10) Some have argued that Anselm’s theory appears to sever satisfaction from punishment, making them mutually exclusive alternatives. This, again, is partially correct. It wasn’t until the Reformation that focus was placed on the doctrine of penal substitution in which satisfaction is achieved through vicarious suffering. That isn’t to suggest that penal substitution originated with the Reformers. There is ample evidence that it figured prominently in the thinking of countless early church fathers. I’m only saying that it took the Reformers to bring Anselm’s satisfaction theory a step closer to the biblical portrayal of atonement when they articulated the more accurate concept of satisfaction by means of penal substitution.