Intellectual genius, courage, piety, and administrative skill make Anselm of Canterbury one of the most admired Christians of his age.
Born in northern Italy, he accepted the formidable task of establishing order in the English church, serving as archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of two kings who demanded the right to appoint bishops in the church. Anselm demurred. Conflict and exiles were the stiff price he paid for his principled stand.
His most famous work, Cur deus homo (usually translated, Why God Became Man) presents his doctrine of Christ’s atoning work. Sin insults God’s honor, and man is forever lost unless he makes satisfaction. But this fallen man cannot do; sin is too grave, too outrageous.
Wonderfully, the Triune God is not only righteous but loving, and determines to save man. God the Son becomes man, and as a sinless man, voluntarily pays the debt that satisfies God’s honor. Because he is God, his death has infinite value, and secures man’s salvation.
In Cur deus homo, Anselm’s doctrine of the atonement is incomplete. He does not present Christ as the One who bears and pays the penalty of believers’ sin, satisfying on the cross the demands of God’s justice. Nor does Anselm present Christ’s perfect commandment-kepping life as meeting the just requirements of God’s law in behalf of believers.
Nonetheless, by emphasizing the gravity of sin, the holiness of God, and the objective nature (godward direction) of Christ’s sacrifice, Anselm’s work has proved of enduring value to God’s church.
Anselm’s deep piety finds expression in this prayer:
Almighty God, merciful Father, and my good Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Grant me forgiveness of my sins.
Make me guard against and overcome all snares, temptations, and harmful pleasures.
May I shun utterly in word and in deed, whatever you forbid, and do and keep whatever you command.
Let me believe and hope, love and live, according to your purpose and your will.
Give me heart-piercing goodness and humility; discerning abstinence and mortification of the flesh.
Help me to love you and pray to you, praise you and meditate upon you.
May I act and think in all things according to your will, purely, soberly, devoutly, and with a true and effective mind.
Let me know your commandments, and love them, carry them out readily, and bring them into effect.
Always, Lord, let me go on with humility to better things and never grow slack.
Lord, do not give me over either to my human ignorance and weakness or to my own deserts, or to anything, other than your loving dealing with me.
Do you yourself in kindness dispose of me, my thought and actions, according to your good pleasure, so that your will may always be done by me and in me and concerning me. Deliver me from all evil and lead me to eternal life through the Lord.
The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion (Penguin Books, 1986), 91-92