Anselm of Canterbury
The struggle between the wish for a scholarly life and the expectations of others for high office for him began in Anselm’s earliest years. His father wanted him in politics and forbade him entry to the local abbey. When the abbot refused to accept the 15-year-old without his father’s consent, Anselm prayed to become ill: he reasoned he could enter if he was in danger of death. He did become seriously ill but was still refused admission.
He wondered around Europe for some years, settling at Bec, Normandy, to study under Lanfranc, a renowned scholar. Anselm desired to live the monastic life in obscurity, and hoped the fame of Lanfranc would outshine his possible accomplishments.
When the Normans invaded England, William the Conqueror gave the monastery at Bec several tracts of English land and Anselm eventually became archbishop of Canterbury. In his clear precise way of arguing, he exerted pressure on the king, William Rufus, to free the Church from lay power. He refused to do anything priestly for William until the king restored lands to Canterbury, and recognized the archbishop as supreme in spiritual matters. The king, being ill, agreed but reneged on his promises when he recovered from his illness. Anselm hated his position at Canterbury and went into exile. This provided the time for further serious theological exploration.
Concerning the relationship of faith and reason, he concluded that faith is the precondition of knowledge, ‘I believe in order to understand’. He didn’t despise reason, but simply believed knowledge cannot lead to faith, and knowledge gained outside of faith is untrustworthy.
Anselm wrote ‘Why Did God Become Man?’, which became the most influential treatise on the atonement in the Middle Ages. He argued for the ‘satisfaction theory.’ Humankind was held captive to sin and death by Satan, at least until Christ paid the ransom through his death, and in the Resurrection, broke the power of Satan’s chains. Anselm argued instead that it wasn’t Satan who was owed something but God. In Adam, all human beings had sinned against divine holiness. Furthermore, being both finite and sinful, people were powerless to make proper restitution. That could only be accomplished by Christ.
Anselm’s considerable and complex work led to his influence been wide and deep. His works were copied and disseminated in his lifetime, and influenced later scholastics, such as Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham. Anselm is remembered today not merely as a great archbishop but as one of the most profound thinkers of the Middle Ages.
Are you finding these reflections on our Church fathers thought provoking? Do you think that theological exploration added to the beliefs and understanding of Paul’s, as set out in his epistles? Do you think they might have shone a brighter light on Jesus? Perhaps I could ask you a different question: do you think it is sufficient to read the Bible for an understanding of your faith? Ponder these things….
Anselm of Canterbury