Anselm of Canterbury – Scholastic Theologian

Faithful Through the Ages

Anselm of Canterbury – Scholastic Theologian
Quote: “I believe
in order to understand.”

As one of the early proponents of scholasticism,
Anselm (1033 – 1109)
exemplifies the theological mindset of the eleventh
century. Even as he
develops his philosophical approach, he does not
challenge the given wisdom of
the age. His monastic theology grows out of his
spiritual underpinnings: “I
believe in order to understand” is his motto, and
his best-known philosophical
writing—his ontological proof for God—is
presented as a prayer.

Born into landed nobility, Anselm is encouraged by
his mother to become a monk
at a nearby monastery—a calling delayed until he
is twenty-seven because of
his father’s objections. Anselm blossoms at the
Benedictine abbey of Bec in
Normandy, under the scholarly leadership of
Lanfranc. At thirty he is selected
to succeed Lanfranc, who transfers to
another monastery.

The emotional bonds formed amid monastic living are
often closer than family
ties. In a letter written in his mid-forties, Anselm
reveals pain comparable
to that of a spouse forsaken by the

Brother Anselm to Dom Gilbert, brother, friend, beloved
lover . . . sweet to
me, sweetest friend, are the gifts of your sweetness,
but they cannot begin to
console my desolate heart for its want of your
love. . . . But you have gained
from our very separation the company of
someone else, whom you love no less—or
even more—than me; while I have lost
you, and there is no one to take your

Despite such pain—or
perhaps because of it—Anselm focuses his attention on God
and on spiritual
exercises and rigorous asceticism, writing devotions and
prayers and songs.
For him, meditation and prayer open minds to an
understanding of God. His
poetry captures visual images of God:

Jesus, as a mother you gather your
people to you: / You are gentle with us as
a mother with her children; /
Often you weep over our sins and our pride: /
tenderly you draw us from
hatred and judgment. / You comfort us in sorrow and
bind up our wounds: / in
sickness you nurse us, / and with pure milk you feed

The most
difficult problem Anselm tackles is Does God exist? His ontological
for the existence of God is still discussed today by theologians
philosophers. God’s nonexistence is inconceivable, he argues; therefore,
exists. One cannot speak of God and then claim he does not exist. But
“proof,” according to critics, is tangled in circuitous arguments.
immediately another theologian writes a response, and Aquinas likewise
Anselm’s argument, as do many philosophers of the Enlightenment and
since. But
his proof has had an astoundingly long shelf life, and a history
of philosophy
textbook would not be complete without it.

In 1092
Anselm journeys to England, is named a bishop, and later is
archbishop of Canterbury. After a clash with King William Rufus,
Anselm is
exiled. His exile allows him time to complete his writing on the
that is still widely referenced today. In Cur Deus Homo (Why a
God-Man?), he
argues that there is a rational explanation for the incarnation
directly tied
to Christ’s death on the cross. He asks why it was necessary
for God to send
his son to die for sin. He answers that sin robs God of his
honor, and for
God’s honor to be preserved there must be either satisfaction
or punishment.
Satisfaction for sin requires far more than an individual can
render. But
man’s sin must be satisfied by a man. Thus, in the incarnation
God-man offered
satisfaction for man’s sin.

Protestant Reformers draw
on Anselm in explaining the atonement, although John
Calvin emphasizes God’s
holiness and justice over his honor. Of all the
theories put forward, the one
that draws the most attention is set forth by a
young upstart more than forty
years Anselm’s junior, Peter Abelard, who comes
of age just as Anselm is
finalizing his atonement theory.

After the death of King Rufus, Anselm
returns to his post as archbishop. But
the new king creates even more
problems for him. Once again he journeys to
Rome and is vindicated by the
pope. Considered a saintly man in his lifetime,
Anselm is still honored as a
saint by both Catholics and Anglicans today.

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